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Trip Report Trip Report: India Travelawg

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Returned in January from a wander through North India and Kathmandu, Nepal. Before I plunge into my travel stories (which will take quite some time, as I'm overwhelmed at work right now) here are the logistics. We made all arrangements on our own, and with the immense help of this forum!!!, and did not use an agency. It was a lot of work, but we think saved us thousands of dollars. We probably could have done some things better, and when you book yourself you take on all the risk, but for me its worth the freedom that comes with it. For the most part we were very pleased. We are looking forward to our next trip to India, at which time we will likely go south.

Airlines. We booked our tix in advance of our trip – while we were there, most of the airlines cut their rates and/or fuel surcharges pretty substantially, so these prices are probably inflated if you book on these airlines now:

Air France: Washington DC to Paris to Mumbai. Used points. No problems at all – fairly comfortable, half-way decent food and good wine. My only complaint was that the guy sitting next to me on the Paris to Mumbai leg was hacking and coughing during the entire flight – and you guessed it – even though I had taken airborne and avoided even looking in his direction, a week later I came down with the cold and spent the next several weeks in India trying to recover. It didn’t deter me from enjoying myself though.

Jet: Khajuraho to Varanasi. About $100 pp, booked through Travelocity.co.in. Excellent service checking us in at Khajuraho. Not as roomy as some of the other Indian domestics, but like the other domestic airlines, managed to feed us an entire meal during the short flight.

Indian Airlines: Varanasi to Kathmandu. A bit expensive IMO - about $166 pp. This was the only flight I could not book online – had to get it ticketed by a travel agent. Not as professional at the gate as they could have been. Seats were roomy – maybe because the aircraft was a bit old -- and the flight was perfectly fine, even though I had braced myself for a miserable experience, based on some of the comments I’ve read about Indian. It was great being able to fly direct to Kathmandu from Varanasi. If you decide to do this, keep in mind that it doesn’t fly every day – something like every other day.

JetLite: Kathmandu to Delhi. $117 booked on travelocity.co.in. This is Jet’s budget carrier – it was fine – again the seats on Jet flights aren’t as roomy. We had selected seats ahead of time to find out upon arrival at the airport that they were reassigned. Upon a diplomatic complaint, the gate agent was nice enough to find us seats on the side of the plane we requested (great views of the Himalayas). Unfortunately, we were delayed in Kathmandu for about 5 hours, and stuck seated in the mass waiting room, which just about drove me around the bend, but eventually we got to Delhi.

Kingfisher: Delhi to Mumbai. $141 booked on Travelocity.co.in. As many here have commented, this is a jewel of an airline. This is the airline that proves the benefits of capitalism as they are obviously obsessed with offering the best, most competitive product. Superb curbside bag service, everything works like clockwork. Comfortable flight with loads of amenities – super efficient service, great in-flight entertainment system, good food, etc., etc. I wish we had been able to use them for all our domestic flights. Next time for sure.

Continental: Mumbai to Newark to Washington DC. Used points. First/Business wasn’t as good as some other carriers, but it was fine. Seats could be a bit more comfortable and flatter on extension, but who am I to complain – flying in first you can actually sleep and arrive feeling somewhat human after 17 hours in the air. Food was okay – nothing special, but we had excellent and very friendly in-flight service.

Trains:

Mumbai to Ahmedabad overnight train. $32.50 pp 1A. Booked on irctc.co.in, which took a couple of tries, but eventually worked. Three of us in a 4-person berth. We were joined by an older Indian gentleman, Mr. V. Patel, who was back in India after having lived in New Jersey, USA, for many years. He was a great conversationalist – we had thought about booking the whole compartment, but were glad we didn’t as we would have missed out on conversing with this pleasant and knowledgeable man. Train was clean enough and we actually did get some rest.

Agra to Jhansi. AC chair class. Can’t remember exactly what we paid, but it was less than $20 pp. Our driver suggested that we do this, as he said the road was very rough between these cities. Booked on irctc.co.in from the hotel in Agra and it worked on my first try. There were very few people on this train, which was filthy – lots of “wildlife” on board! The driver met us in Jhansi with our luggage, so it worked out fine – probably better than the road trip would have been.

Car companies:

Rajasthan 4-Wheel drive, http://www.fourwheeldriveindia.com/ Drove us for about 3 weeks from Ahmedabad through Rajasthan to Kajuraho. Very reasonable rates, IMO. We opted for a Toyota Innova van, which was clean and well-equipped. We had one bad glitch with this company (story to follow), but they went out of their way to correct it. Our driver, Ramesh Meena, was excellent. He was a very skilled driver, who kept up the pace but took no unreasonable risks, was very knowledgeable – which saved us tons of time and possible aggravation, friendly and funny, professional, and hospitable. More on him later.

State Express in Delhi – had to fire this company. Lots of problems. Don’t use them unless you can’t find anyone else.

Kumar Taxi – my post has been removed regarding my experience with this company for some unknown reason. While others have used this company with success, I had a problem with them pulling a reservation for a car in Delhi after I decided not to use them for the longer portion of my trip.

Hotels (tried to stay at least 3 nights in each location – there were a few that we stayed in just 1 or 2 nights, which I generally find too exhausting to do too much of on a long trip):

Mumbai: Hotel Suba Palace. http://www.hotelsubapalace.com/about.htm right on Apollo Bunder in Colaba, a very short walk to the Gateway of India. Location was fantastic. We originally had hoped to stay at the Taj Mahal Palace, but discovered (with dogster’s help) that two rooms for three nights were going to cost a fortune. As it turned out, we wouldn’t have been able to stay there anyway, because of the terrorist attacks. Our next choice was Gordon House, which is right next door to Hotel Suba Palace, but unfortunately it was full for our dates (though later it occurred to me we probably should have asked if they had any cancellations). So we ended up staying at Hotel Suba Palace. Triple room cost $121 per night. The room was basic, but clean. Bathroom was functional, but that’s about all. Breakfast was included – not the most luxurious, but plenty of food and eatable. We had a problem upon check out using our AMEX card – they told us their AMEX machine wasn’t working. This was the first time we were told that story – it took us twice to finally realize that some hotels will advertise that they take AMEX, but in reality, I think they don’t really want to take it because they probably have to pay a higher fee, so they tell you their machine isn’t working. The third time this was tried with us (which happened at a Taj property), I told them that was the only card I carried and they called it in and took an imprint of the card. I wanted to use AMEX over Visa because conversion fee on my AMEX was 2 percent, while Visa was charging 3 percent.

Udaipur: Jagat Niwas Palace http://www.jagatniwaspalace.com/index.html. We paid $58/double lakefront room. Lovely place – excellent location. We had a spacious room with a reading alcove. Bathroom was decent. Beds were a bit hard (as they are in most hotels in India). We ate in their rooftop restaurant, which had nice view of the lake palace and the food was pretty good.

Jodhpur: Ratan Vilas www.ratanvilas.com. We had 2 rooms, one single and one double and it cost something like $110 per night for both rooms. The location is a little bit out of town, but that wasn’t a problem for us as we had the car. We enjoyed the quiet atmosphere. The service is very good – they are low key, but very helpful and friendly. The room was lovely with antique furnishings – very spacious. The bathroom was fantastic. Ate there a few times and the food was quite good. Overall it was a very enjoyable property.

Jaisalmer: Shahi Palace Hotel. $44/double. We stayed our first night in this backpacker- type hotel, but moved because we felt it had been oversold to us – the rooms were small, the bathrooms abysmal, and the place was extremely noisy. It was suggested to me by the driver that perhaps their reviews on some advisor websites may be self-created. Don’t know if that is true, and maybe I was oversensitive because the cold I caught from a fellow passenger on the way over was in full bloom, but all I wanted was some rest and couldn’t get it. We heard every person coming into and leaving the hotel, late into the night returning from camel safaris and early in the morning leaving for camel safaris – heard the desk clerks talking as if they were in our room, and there were dog fights and pigeon wars going on just outside our windows. Had there been no screen in the bathroom window, the pigeon hostilities would have been going on in our room. It was also cold – I had to ask for extra blankets – and the pillow was as thin and as comfortable as cardboard. I will say the rooftop restaurant/lounge has a great view of the fort, especially at sunset (food not so great), but that did not make up for the rest of the issues we had with the place, so we moved to:
Taj Rawalkot: thegatewayhotels.com/index.htm?hotelId=TJSARK&page=Overview
They gave us what I thought was a great price $55/night (especially since the neighboring Hotel Rajwada quoted us a ridiculous price and we heard that though the hotel is very pretty, the rooms are nothing special). It was a bit out of town, again no problem as we had a car available. Rooms had nice furnishings and the beds were extremely comfortable. Bathrooms were very nice – plenty of amenities. Breakfast was included and was quite good. Also ate dinner here one night and it was fair. The hotel courtyards were peaceful and there was a great view of the fort from the pool area – a nice place to sit and relax with a drink. Best part: it was quiet!!

Bikaner: Hotel Lallgarh Palace. http://www.lallgarhpalace.com/ Impressive palace made into a heritage hotel. Paid about $120/double. Our room was large, as was the bathroom, and very quiet. We enjoyed exploring the palace and found the billiard room and the bar to be quite impressive with the former maharajah’s hunting trophies hanging on the walls (if you are a PETA member, avoid these rooms at all costs!) We ate in the courtyard restaurant one night – which was pretty good. Our complaint with this place was that we exchanged some money and found out a couple of days later that they slipped us a bad 1000 Rs note. When we called them (our driver offered to take it back to them on his next visit to the city), they refused to take responsibility for it – and I understand why – how could we prove it was them who gave it to us? Still, it left a bad taste in our mouths as the driver told us that they had to have known they were giving us a bad bill – and we were unsuspecting tourists who would not know what to look for.

Mandawa: Castle Mandawa Hotel. http://www.mandawahotels.com/ about $120/double. Also a fun place to stay and explore, though the website photos look a lot better than in person -- the place is a bit worn looking, though still comfortable. We had a great set of adjoining rooms with good bathrooms in the old section of the hotel. Temple music starts early in the morning, which is a bit annoying if you are trying to sleep – I will say that after a while in India, you learn to sleep though it. We ate dinner in the hotel restaurant one night – they have a set menu – and it was good, but I found it a bit claustrophobic, as the somewhat surly waiters perch around your table watching your every move. Location was excellent – easy walk into town and near the painted havelis in Mandawa.

Jaipur: Umaid Bhawan http://www.umaidbhawan.com $95/triple including breakfast. Staff is spectacularly unhelpful and sullen, but the room was spacious and comfortable – good beds and nice sitting area. Bathroom was fine, though you could hear a buzz from the electrical closet next door – which turned out to be fairly annoying at night. Breakfast was sufficient and served on the rooftop terrace. Location was a bit far from the sites, again no problem if you have a car.

Agra: Taj View. tajhotels.com/Leisure/Taj%20View%20Hotel,AGRA/rooms.asp
$224 triple including breakfast. Had a very nice room – modern and very comfortable. Even though we had one of the best rooms in the hotel, with supposedly one of the best views of the Taj Mahal, it was so foggy while we were in Agra, that we saw only whiteness out of our window. Breakfast was excellent – probably the best of our trip. My DH and DD ate in the restaurant at the hotel one night and said it was excellent.

Orchha: Amar Mahal. http://www.amarmahal.com/amarmahal.htm $143/suite with extra bed. Breakfast was not included, but we ended up not being charged for it for an unknown reason – didn’t notice till later. This is a very nice property. We had a huge room with antique furnishings and a bathroom almost as big as the room. We enjoyed relaxing with drinks in the pretty garden courtyard. Breakfast was okay. Dinner was also okay, but the service in the restaurant was not the best. Location was good and the hotel had some good views of the cenotaphs. This is the 2nd place that told us upon checkout that their credit card machine wasn’t working – not just the AMEX, but any credit card, so we were told we had to pay cash. We were totally unprepared to fork over so much cash, but managed to just eek it out, leaving us completely cashless. (If we had thought of it, we would have tried to use the bad 1000 Rs note, but DH had stuck that in the back of his wallet, hoping to take it to a bank later to see if we could redeem it and we had forgotten about it!) BTW, there was an ATM in town.

Khajuraho: Taj Chandela $202/triple including breakfast. tajhotels.com/Leisure/Hotel%20Chandela,KHAJURAHO/default.htm This property struck us as being straight out of the seventies. We had a very nice 2-room suite with both a balcony and a large private terrace. Beds were very comfortable. The bathroom was small, but nice, with lots of amenities. Breakfast was good with a nice selection. One night we ate outside in the BBQ restaurant – endless meat kabobs of every type, including, surprisingly, beef. We were entertained with musicians and a private puppet show, which was fun. It was very cold that night, so the staff surrounded us with hibachi-style fires. This is the third place that told us their AMEX credit card machine wasn’t working, but by now I had caught on and told them, much to their chagrin, that they could call it in and take an imprint (they are a Taj property, after all!), which they did.

Varanasi: A Palace on River http://www.palaceonriver.com/load.htm 2 deluxe river rooms $68/night each. This place is basic, but clean. It is really the best location for staying on the Ganges – nice views out the front hotel windows, with parrots and monkeys hanging out in the trees outside. The staff was very nice and quite helpful. We pretty much ate all our meals here in the upstairs, which was good and the staff up there was very friendly. I was looking forward to meeting the famous Bruno, of dogster fame, but I am sorry to report that I was told he was in the dog hospital with a leg ailment. We had a very good stay here.

Kathmandu: Hotel Courtyard in Thamel area. http://www.hotelcourtyard.com/ $115/ junior suite. This place has recently been taken over by Pujan and Michelle, who are working hard to make it a boutique hotel, and are succeeding by all counts. (Pujan’s family built the hotel as a home, and it had been subsequently made into a guesthouse). They were kind enough to give our DD her own room, which of course, was a wonderful gift. The rooms were nicely decorated and had great comforters and the most inviting pillows. Michelle and Pujan treat you like family friends and it was fun to talk to them and hang out in the hotel’s public spaces. Michelle had just managed to find soft and fluffy bath towels the first day we were there, and that was a thrill. Breakfast was good, although the breakfast room was pretty cold. The power is turned off intermittingly for 12 hours a day in Kathmandu, and although the hotel has some limited generator service, they are working on getting one that will run the entire place during the frequent power outages. Location is excellent – in Thamel, but still quiet and peaceful.

Delhi: Delhi Bed and Breakfast. http://www.delhibedandbreakfast.com/ Approximately $80/double including breakfast. We enjoyed our stay in this lovely family home. Pervez, the owner, is a great conversationalist who goes out of his way to ensure his guests’ comfort and meet their needs. Breakfast is around a large table where you meet other guests and was a lot of fun. We found this house to be warm and welcoming and a great place to acclimate upon arrival in India, or as a last stop to enjoy Indian hospitality before you leave for home.

Tours:

Mumbai: http://www.realitytoursandtravel.com/sightstosee.html ($135 per person – lunch 200 Rs); Slum and sightseeing tour. We saw Slumdog Millionaire the night before we left on our trip (back when it was only in a few theaters and not yet an Oscar contender) – and that gave us a perfect way to prepare ourselves for the disparities in India. Just a day later we were walking though the slum where the film was made – and it gave us a much better understanding of slum life, the incredible micro-commerce that operates there, and the community that the slum encompasses. The guys that run this thing are trying to make a go of it and do some work in the community, but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of evidence of results. However, I found the tour to be worthwhile and well run. More on that later.

Mumbai: http://www.beyondbombay.in/index.html ($3500Rs per person includes car and driver, refreshments and entry to some places). We ended up not taking this tour, which was advertised to us as a Bollywood tour. I link it because they were good at communicating with us and seemed very professional. What we wanted most was to either get into Film City or into a shoot or production house, which they said they would try to do, until the week before we left, when they wrote and said they weren’t going to be able to manage it. They did offer us a tour where they would show clips of Bollywood movies inside the van while you are at the place they were filmed, and also take you past some homes of stars and to places where the stars hang out, but that really didn’t interest us so much. We tried contacting numerous organizations to find an actual Bollywood tour, but never did find one. We did have a Bollywood experience, which I will tell you about shortly . . .

Amedabad: http://www.egovamc.com/Heritage/home.asp a few dollars a person. This organization runs walking tour of old Ahmedabad, which we enjoyed. Very interesting and informative.

Before I start relating my India vignettes, let me just say that, like others, I found India to be a place of irreconcilable contrasts. I am at ease just about any place, and I am intrigued and comfortable with other cultures and languages, but India is a place where you are truly stripped of your everyday thinking and comforts. I expected that somehow I would go to India, directly experience it and come back with an understanding of it, a kind of possession of it. But India is indefinable -- you instead come back with even more curiosity, daydreams, and layers of oddly romantic notions. At home, I spend my days working in a bureaucratic job, a legal job, in which I attempt to force people to change their behavior. It was wonderful to be in a place where I couldn’t force or control anything, no matter how hard I might try. I loved the feeling of being thrust into chaos and discomfort. And a great thing about this country is that you can be in the most uncomfortable adventurous place, but turn around and enjoy the most luxurious hotel – and you can seek out and find the most delightful treats (like a clean western toilet, LOL). Usually when I travel, I find that the reality of the place diminishes my imagination of it. In India, the reality of the place increased my imagination. And, I can’t wait to go back. Please enjoy my stories. I’m not the most talented writer and sometimes I get a bit long-winded and detailed, but I hope that doesn’t detract from expressing to you the excitement I experienced from a trip to a most incredible country. India.

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    Mumbai: 26/11 and Reality.

    We arrived in Mumbai just a few days after the horrid terrorist attacks. We were urged by family, friends and colleagues all not to take the trip. In fact some even accused us of being voyeurs! We decided that we were not going to let the terrorists scare us off – the horse was already out of the barn -- so what was there to be afraid of? One friend forwarded us an article that said two of the terrorists weren’t caught and they were still roaming the city hunting for westerners. I reminded this friend that there are over 13 million people in Mumbai, figure the odds! As it turned out, the odds were closer to us than we expected. The father of one of DD’s university pals, who is from Mumbai, was shot in the attack. He was at the Oberoi having dinner with some friends when the gunmen came in and opened fire. His friends were killed, but he got lucky and was only grazed by a couple of bullets. He hid under a pile of bodies for a day and a half, until it finally became safe to leave. We were in touch with DD’s friend, AP, who had flown back to Mumbai to be with her dad, so we also knew that the city was under control before we were to arrive. I am happy to report that he is doing fine, obviously missing his friends, but with true Indian strength of character, back to work. We met up with AP while we were in Mumbai --- more on that in a bit.

    We arrived at BOM at about 2 o’clock in the morning. While we were filling out our immigration forms, DD’s pen exploded and left a huge black blot over her passport number. We couldn’t find any blank forms, so we approached passport control expecting a problem. No, the officer just stamped her passport and paperwork without even a blink and we were in India. Apparently, there is much to be done with security. After retrieving our baggage and exchanging some dollars into Rupees (48.8 Rs. to $1!) we exited the airport into . . . chaos! Ah . . . incredible India! It was exactly what I was longing for – pure sensory stimulation – even more shocking to the system after 17 hours of boring flights and airline meals. Assailed by new smells, we walked the gauntlet lined with taxi drivers, touts, signs, waiting family members, a din of chatter, shouting, horns – a crush of people all looking for someone or something. We located our name on one of the signs and met our ride to the hotel. (Upon arrival to a new airport, it is always worth the money to have arranged car pickup – its no fun to try to find taxis, communicate and worry about having the correct money when you are exhausted and want to just drop your bags and lay flat!) The driver took our cart of luggage and steered it and us toward his car in the crumbling parking lot. Dogs and cats wandered by, scavenging for whatever the arriving passengers and hawkers have left behind. I never saw so many taxis and auto rickshaws in my life. Thousands of black and yellows – old fiat-looking models, now converted to run on natural gas – not one newer than 25 or 30 years old. They say Mumbai has 60,000 taxis – and I think they were all at the airport when we arrived.

    After an hour ride from north Mumbai to South Mumbai, and a ride around “the queen’s necklace,” the street lights looking like her string of pearls, we arrived in Colaba at the Hotel Suba Palace. We were immediately escorted to our room and collapsed into bed for a 4-hour sleep until our guide would arrive at 8:30. After a quick breakfast of masala chai, veg patties and toast, we wandered outside the hotel to find our tour guide. Ganesh, a slight and very young-looking man (and who did not actually have an elephant head) introduced himself to us and escorted us to the jeep that would take us on our “reality’ tour around Mumbai.

    First point of interest was a children’s “traffic park” – a small park filed with traffic signal lights, signs and even small cars for children to learn how to drive and all about highway safety . . . ingenious, except that there are no camel carts, or trucks bearing down on you, or herds of goats or sheep, cows, or throngs of people . . . Perhaps they also need these parks for adult drivers . . . Right next door was a “study park” built for street children to have a place to read and study – with plenty of light, chairs and surfaces to write on – and bathrooms even. Hard to believe, but even some homeless children go to school – and they need a place to study. Just up the road we pass by small concrete structures with missing window glass under some railway bridges that we are told used to be run as homes for street boys. The small structures would house about 150 boys who would sleep on the floor. During the day, they would find ways to make money and go there to sleep at night. The government provided them with free medical care, but they would need to find a way to pay for their own medicine, if any of that makes sense. The shelters are closed right now for “renovation,” but it did not appear that anyone is working on them presently. From there we drove past the homes of “pavement dwellers.” Families build small shelters out of whatever they can find and literally live on the sidewalk. Babies and children play outside these tiny squalid homes, men shave and wash themselves in the street and mothers cook over small burners, whatever they can find or afford.

    Next, we drive up Grant Road – one of the red light districts of Mumbai. Ganesh tells us that at one time there were 70-80,000 prostitutes in Bombay. The number is now supposedly reduced to 10,000 – and they are spread out all over the city, but many brothels are still run out of places on Grant Road. Sure enough, women and transvestites, and, sadly, children, in dirty saris with glaring red lipstick line the street. Prostitution is illegal in India, but the police, who either frequent the brothels, or who enjoy a nice payoff from the owners, basically close their eyes to it. The women are brought in from the countryside with a promise of a good job – the families are paid 20-30,000 Rs and the girls are resold to the brothels for 50-100,000 Rs, making a nice profit for the human traffickers. The girls have to pay the owners back if they want their freedom – an impossibility. They can’t run away, as they are watched closely by the pimps. It’s a human tragedy of immense proportions.

    With these deep concerns on our minds, we leave the Grant Road area and travel up to the Dhobi Ghats – an open-air laundry with cement stalls where men are pounding the hell out of the garments of Mumbai’s poorer classes. Each evening they pick up garments from around the city, take them to the Dhobi Ghats and wash, beat and rinse the clothes and hang them dry – for abut 5 Rs per garment. The garments are tagged and separated by color – and after being washed and dried are returned to their owners the next evening. The washmen have been raised in the business, as the business has been passed down by families for over 100 years. After a walk by a very busy train station and a horse track, we find our jeep and head off to visit the Dharavi Slum.

    Dharavi is called the “heart” of Bombay. It is huge – the largest slum in Asia. Its population is 1 million and consists of people who have come to Mumbai from all over India. The slum was built on top of a mangrove swamp and eventually was reinforced by the government to prevent it from sinking. The huts and buildings are made from everything imaginable and the place is criss-crossed with tiny alleys and roads – a maze through humanity. The slum dwellers appear very happy and its obvious have a strong sense of community. The place is a model of free market business, as all sorts of money-making enterprises – legal and illegal – are run out of Dharavi – and we are told that the slum is completely self-sustaining. We are greeted continually by looks of curiosity and smiles – small children get a thrill out of saying “hi” and shaking our hands – they seem to wander in the slum with no fear of any harm and are watched over by everyone. We first visit the huge recycling business. Scores of people go out into the city and pick through trash, looking for whatever items can be recycled. Plastics are separated out by color and strength – they are then crushed and washed and dragged up to the rooftops to dry out. We go up to see the drying process and stand on top of one of the rooftops where we can survey the vast stretch of the slum in every direction. The plastic is then made into strips – and eventually melted into blocks that are made into everything – buttons, toys, etc. We see men hand-stamping silk cloth with gold leaf. Then we come across a tiny factory making children’s clothes – men cutting, embroidering, sewing, ironing and packing the outfits for sale in the markets. Some of the workers look very young, but are happy and joking with each other in the small, dark room with just one window. They work furiously, as they are paid by the piece. (It is said there are 15,000 such single-room factories in Dharavi.) We see paint cans recycled – the old paint burned out (the workers have no masks or gloves!) and cans banged back into shape, cleaned and resold to the paint companies. Same for vegetable oil tins – fascinating to see the silver square tins stacked from floor to ceiling in row upon row. Women make papad – we watch them roll out the dough into circles, which they dry on baskets in the sun. We see a bakery that makes puff pastry – its packaged and shipped all over the city for morning breakfast – small factories making soaps for washing clothes and dishes – leather factories – some sewing wallets for Gucci – and a pottery area. Some of the earliest residents of Dharavi came from Gujarat and Rajasthan – folks who were and are masters of making clay from rice field dirt and forming it into pots that are sold all over the country. The living conditions here are horrible – open sewage ditches, one toilet for every 1500 residents and dirty water – but still more people come. Some come for ten years, work and go back to live very wealthy in their villages. Kids generally go to school, but many don’t and work instead – a travesty. The place is amazing – while even the most basic of human needs are lacking, technology reigns. You see extremely tiny ramshackle houses, rented for about 1000 Rs a month, with televisions and computers inside. Cell phones abound. The slum is a haven of industry. People have and make opportunities for themselves out of nothing. All in all, Dharavi is a very interesting and complex place – and it contains all the best and worst of human innovation and existence.

    The rest of our afternoon consists of a tour of the popular sites of Mumbai: Mahalaxmi Temple, Haji Ali Mosque, the Banganga Tank (in bad shape after a tragedy last year where people threw so much stuff into the tank that it killed of all the fish – 3 huge trucks full of dead fish were taken out – it has been drained it and is under reconstruction), Malabar Hill, the Jain temple, the Parsi towers, and the Mavi Bhavan Museum, where Gandhi lived from 1917-1934. We return to the hotel exhausted with the hope of sleep and overcoming jet lag so we can now function on India time.

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    Hey travelaw: what a great report so far: full of all the detail that people need. Well written too and interesting. Like thursday, I'm delighted that you entered into the spirit of the place [and that I could help just a little] I'm only sorry that you didn't meet the famous Bruno. Did the guys at the hotel remember the guest he dragged into the Ganges? heh.

    Put all the detail you want in the reports - and never apologise for being long-winded - lordy, if there was a prize for that I would have won it years ago.

    Bless you and write more. This is fascinbating.

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    "But India is indefinable -- you instead come back with even more curiosity, daydreams, and layers of oddly romantic notions"

    This. Yes and yes and yes.

    Wonderful report, thank you!

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    Fantastic report! I really appreciate how you organized all the details up front. The only thing lacking possibly is a description of who the "players" are; you and your family/traveling companions. You mention your DD (age?). Was it just you and her traveling?

    And don't worry, most of us here love all the details you can dish out. The description of your first tour was great.

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    You LIKE me! You really LIKE me!

    Sorry, still in Oscar mode. So great for India that Slumdog won. And I just loved A.R. Rahman's speech about choosing love over hate. Isn't that what it is really all about? The sincerity of the all the Slumdog folks was so refreshing in the face of the typical Hollywood self-importance. Good on 'em.

    Now, back to the report. Really and sncerely, thank you all for the kind remarks.
    Thursdaysd: I really DID fall for India. Hard. I've been listening to DVD's I bought there almost continuously. We've been eating Indian food at every opportunity, and, I've ordered up a bunch of Bollywood flicks. I've got it bad!
    Dogster: Thanks for your blessings and really kind reaction. I'm sure I could never compete with your fabulous reports. Just look at the following you've been amassing on these boards! And, yes, you are remembered well in Varanasi. When I asked about Bruno, they wanted to know how I knew about him. I explained that he now had an international following because a former guest had enshrined him in his stories on the internet. They laughed hard and said, "oh yes, Mr. Dogster! We remember him well!" So, there you go. You remain solidly ensconced in their memories. You really have a knack for finding your way into folks' hearts, don't you? Its wonderful.
    ileen and Amy: thanks so much for reading. Its so nice to be able to tell some travel stories and find people interested in hearing them. At home, I usually get half a sentence out and am cut off with "back to me!" Just love being able to share with you guys and know you are listening!
    Kristina: The players are myself, my dear husband and my dear 21-year old daughter. She was originally going to bring along a friend on this trip, but the friend cancelled out just a few weeks before we left. I'm sure it was hard on DD, as who wants to spend all that time with your old fogey parents -- and I WAS a bit worried that she would want to divorce us, as dogster suggested she might when we were formalizing the plans on the forum -- but she is a trooper and we ended up having a wonderful time together. She is my daughter, so, naturally, I think the world of her, but she really IS a great person and lots of fun and I am blessed to have a really close and fantastic relationship with her.
    msmango: you will see a bit later that we had a problem with 4WDR, but they passed the test and came through with fling colors, so I can absolutely recommend them. We had a very good driver in Ramesh Meena. And I mean a GOOD, safe driver. He is skilled. I drive a lot, as does my husband, and we were both very impressed with his abilities. If you get him I think you will like him.

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    More Mumbai:

    After breakfast and checking email we walked down to the Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal – still standing tall, but roped off and boarded up from the last week’s terrorist attacks – and found the ticket office and paid 250 Rs each to ferry out to Elephanta Island. It was nice to get out on the water and look back at the skyline of Mumbai. We also passed a few Indian Navy ships parked out there – we were told not to take photos of them, but . . . ut . . . too late! After about an hour we arrived at Elephanta Island. We decided to walk up the long causeway – there was also a train, which we scoffed at – tiny little thing – but when it passed by us we realized we wish we were on it and out of the hot sun. Starting to feel a bit musky . . . After a walk through (yet another – they’re everywhere) tout gauntlet, we paid our 5 Rs tax and started climbing the long stairs up to the caves. Just one detour though – paid another 5Rs for the privilege of using toilets that didn’t flush and no running water in the sinks. At least we didn’t have to pee on the rocks by the causeway, which was being frequented by many Indian males. Lovely. Anyway, up the steps – more scoffing at the guy with the carrying chair – what idiot would ever take a chair instead of walking? Well, you guessed it – halfway up and still jet lagging, we were wishing we had chosen to take the chair. Pride goeth before a breathless slog up a long stairway. There were multiple stops on the way up, to the souvenir sellers' delight. Finally at the top, yet another fee, 250 Rs (for foreigners – 100 for Indians) and 25 Rs for video authority – but then you can’t actually take video inside the cave – well, never mind. The place was surrounded by nasty little monkeys – growling at us – and one eventually managed to steal DH’s Coke, poured it out on the pavement and slurped it up, and watched us watching him. Always watch your stuff around the monkeys!!!
    The caves were interesting, though much had over time been destroyed. Still, we enjoyed a couple of hours wandering around. Found our way back to the boats and got into some deep discussions in broken English about the terrorist attacks with the boatmen and the chai wallas. They all expressed gratefulness that we were willing to come, as they had seen an almost complete falling off of the usual tourist crowd.

    Back in Mumbai, we wandered over to another scene of the terrorist attacks, Leopold Café. Apparently, in a display of the defiant Indian spirit, the day after the attacks, the employees of Leopold’s went in and cleaned the place up and opened back up for business. The government, appalled, closed them back up again, as it was a crime scene. They were open again by the time we were in Mumbai, and the place was buzzing. The waiter, who was working at the time of the attacks, pointed out the bullet holes and with some melancholy, but remarkably absent tears, told us about his colleagues and clients who were shot. So sad. We were happy to make a donation to the victim’s fund. Dinner was pretty good – dal, rice, palak paneer, chicken tikka masala and mango ice cream. After dinner we walked along the Colaba Causeway – and then shopped for some necessities – a year’s worth of prescription meds for me, some extra tp, bottled water, and a hairdryer, so I don’t blow out the power at the hotel again.

    Next day, busy morning with all of us vying for the bathroom. The hairdryer I bought turns out to be a joke – I could have DH blow on my hair and it would dry faster. Plus, the collapsible handle kept collapsing. Ha! Guess I will just pull back my hair in a clip for the next month or so. . .

    We spend the morning following the recommended walking tour in the Fodor’s guide – backward – which turned out to be more of a challenge than we thought. Still, saw great sights – amazing places, markets, lots of people-watching spots. The Modern Art Museum had a bizarre painting of Bill and Chelsea Clinton with Putin’s black dog. Putin and his wife were in the next painting over, in front of the Taj Mahal. All were surrounded by a deck of playing cards strewn about. Must mean something to modern art aficionados – a mystery to moi. Across the street to the Prince of Wales Museum – can’t remember the new name – but neither can anyone else, so . . . We decline to go in and continue on the Fodor’s tour, walking up M.G. Road past great examples of Colonial architecture to the Jehangir Art Museum. Across the street we visit the Rhythm House, where DD bought a CD set of essential Bollywood music. We continue up to the Flora Fountain – stared at all along the route – now we know what it feels like to be famous. Ha! (This feeling will continue throughout our travels in India, which really does surprise us.) After the fountain we debate which way to wander. We spy an eternal flame and wander over to it, supposing that it commemorates war dead, or a famous politician or some such thing, but no, unless I am missing some marker, it is an advertisement for the gas company. Interesting advertising placement, I must say.

    Back on our walking tour, we finally make it up to Victoria Terminus, which also has a new name that I can’t remember, but neither can anyone else, so. . . We wander into the terminal, take some film of the pulsating crowds and comment on the diversity of the folks hanging out there waiting for trains. We decide to go up to the Chor Bazaar and hire a cab to take us there. As we zoom through Bombay, we can’t help but compare it to “Blade Runner” – masses of signs everywhere, animals, street stalls, crowds, color, darkness – it seems to go on and on. The cab drops us and we ramble through the streets of the bazaar. I love markets. Not necessarily to buy stuff, but for the smells, the colorful displays of fresh fruit and vegetables, the hustle and bustle of the people and animals, the shouting and bargaining, and even the dirt and flies. DD spots a 16 mm Bolex film movie camera that works, but the guy wants 8,000 Rs. She says she can get it cheaper on Ebay and he doesn’t react – no lowering the price here, so no sale and on we go. Kids riding horses, cats on tin roofs, motorbikes recklessly swerving in and out of the people – its chaotic, but oh so interesting. We decide to head back down to the Jehangir gallery, as we are to meet DD’s friend AP (whose Dad was shot on 26/11) at 3. As we are a bit early, we walk over to Bombay University and watch the hundreds of cricket games in progress.

    We head back to the art gallery for lunch, but the café is closed so we go down the street to the Copper Chimney. Recommended. Food was good – cheese naan, dal, chicken masala, paneer tikka, chicken kebobs and rice. AP finds us in the restaurant and joins us. She is a tough girl, raised in Bombay on Marine Drive. AP’s dad is a big developer – he is building the apartment buildings that are replacing Dharavi. He’s already completed 40 buildings in place of a slum in North Mumbai. After visiting the slums, we have mixed feelings about the slum redevelopments and engage AP in an interesting conversation on the topic. Nothing is black and white, is it?!! After lunch (topped off by gelato from a place a few doors away), AP takes us to her car for a driving tour around the city. We aren’t sure where we are going – no place in particular – when we end up in Horniman Circle. Lo and behold – a Bollywood shoot for the film Delhi Belly is in progress. We park the car and watch from across the street. First we are told to stay back – and no photos! But, then someone wanders over and informs us that the “head man” has decided to invite us over and we are told to come closer and it is now ok to take photos. I tried valiantly before we left the States to set up a Bollywood tour, without success, and here it just falls into our path. Wow! Fantastic! DD and AP are both studying film, so this is just a perfect way to spend the afternoon. After the shoot, we head back to our hotel, goodbyes around – see you in Chicago AP! Send our best to your dear dad and family! On to Bombay Central for the next adventure – overnight train to Ahmedabad.

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    I'm so pleased you had your Bollywood experience! That's where all this began, I seem to remember.

    I'm really enjoying this report, not just as an entertaining story, but as a real blow-by-blow account that has ALL the info another traveler would require. Bravo. I'm enjoying it also 'cos I know exactly where you are. I've been on that reality slum tour - hey, maybe it was me who suggested it, I can't remembver - I came back with reservations about the company and my so-called guide but I, like you, am really pleased I went out there. I can tell by your description we were on the exact same route - probably with the same guide.

    Like I may have said, Reality tours pledge to give a % of their profits back to the community - except there aren't any profits.

    I'm in Mumbai on the 28th - thanks for the Elephanta briefing. I'm at Gordon House so I might go this time. [I don't really want to very much - I just think I SHOULD] I'll know to take the train and the sedan chair. I'll be back in Ahmedabad in a few weeks, so looking forward to your take on that. Well done.

    Two things: totally agree with you about pals not being in the least interested. That's why I write in here, too.

    Second: I'm delighted that you, too, are getting a taste of that positive reinforcement that this board gives out. It's lovely, isn't it?

    Oh, and I'm really happy I'm remembered in Varanasi. That made me smile.

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    Just a bit today, as I am overwhelmed at work.

    Mumbai to Ahmedabad: Mr. V. Patel.

    Supposedly we are to have a 4th in our 4-bunk 1AC cabin, but no one shows – maybe he will board later. DD and I take the uppers and leave DH to fend off our unknown travel companion if he shows… A knock just a short time later and standing there in the door is our 4th, all in white, about 6’4”, with a half British/Indian and half New Jersey accent. Mr. V. Patel is from Cherry Hill, New Jersey – originally from Gujarat – and has now returned to India to take care of his 92-year-old father. Mr. V’s wife, who works for Rite-Aid drug stores, doesn’t want to return to India, so Mr. V. Patel is here alone.
    “What is your Dad’s secret to living so long Mr. Patel?” DH asks.
    “Two scotches every night."
    he continues: "Dad got in the habit when the British were here and he waited on them. The Brits loved their drink. Now Dad has someone wait on him and every night his man brings a tray with a glass and Dad's scotch and soda. Which is very interesting, because Gujarat is a dry state. But Dad has obtained special permission and imports his own scotch.”
    Special permission. I wonder how one attains that.
    Mr. Patel used to work for a German pharma company. He worked his way up from a product manager to VP of new product marketing. He lives well in New Jersey, which his wife now considers her “real” home. Mr. Patel loves India and tells us many stories of his life in India before moving to the States. Mr. Patel has one daughter, who is a lawyer. She practices in Chicago, and while he describes what she does, he happens to mention in passing that she hates my employer. In many ways, I don’t blame her, but I decline to tell Mr. Patel what I do and who I work for – I think it is safer that way . . . considering we are sharing a cabin and I have no idea how deep this "hate" goes. He also tells us where to find the toilet, how to turn off the lights, when to get up, etc.
    There is a knock on the door at 3 am.
    I look down and Mr. V. Patel is gone in a flash of white – much like he arrived. In spite of the bit about my employer, I really liked Mr. Patel -- he gave us a flavor of what life used to be like in India and how much things have changed.

    We arrive at the Ahmedabad station at about 4:45 am in pretty good sleep shape. A scrawny old man with a long red shirt and black skinny pants grunts at us. At first I thought he was begging, but apparently, he is a porter, so ok, yes, please take my luggage. Boy do I feel foolish assuming he was a beggar -- I guess I am conditioned from working in a big city where folks who look like him grunt for money. As we are standing next to a cart, I foolishly expect him to load the baggage on to the cart. But no, he wraps a cloth on his head and loads 2 of our giant 20-kilo bags on top of his head and carries the other. Wow! The next porter over has 4 bags on his head. These guys are amazing!
    A Rep from the car company and our driver locate us (easy to do, as we are the only Westerners there it seems). We load our luggage in the car and we are off to . . .where?
    Breakfast would be nice.
    We drive around the station looking for a place to go – we try numerous places, but everything is closed at 5 am – except the Hotel Moti. We drove by this one earlier, but the rep decided to pass it by -- now it looks like the place to go, merely because it is open. The place is filled with Muslim men dressed in white – we definitely stand out from the crowd in our jeans and hoodies . . . I suspect that we are the topic of many conversations at the tables around us. I smile back at the guys who are staring at us, with no response. AWKWARD! We order tea and toast. Its served to us arranged like little sailboats. We need to chew up a couple of hours, so three rounds of tea and sailboats later we head out to conquer Ahmedabad.

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    Conquer Ahmedabad... lol. Is it possible? We'll wait and see. I was there five days last time - I never conquered Ahmedabad - matter of fact, I don't think I even saw a smile... just that same blank, unfriendly stare. Everywhere.

    'What on earth are you doing here?' the stare said.

    'Go away.'

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    Yeah -- we actually didn't spend too much time in Ahmedabad. We did get a few waves and smiles, but it definitely wasn't as friendly as some other places we visited. Maybe that is what I was feeling in the Hotel Moti. Anyway, here's the next installment. Thanks for reading dogster. I saw your post regarding traffic on your thread and am feeling the same. But I will try for a couple more days and see how it goes. Seems like a lot of work for little interest.

    Ahmedabad – Dumb and dumber and Swami DH

    We’ve instructed the rep from the car company and the driver that we want to take the heritage walk sponsored by the municipal corporation. We understand the tour starts at the Swaminarayan Temple at 8. We’ve already forwarded this info to the car company, but for some reason, these guys do not have our itinerary or any of the info we emailed earlier.
    “No problem – we will find it.”
    Thus begins a search for the Swaminarayan Temple. We drive, and drive, and hey, haven’t I seen this intersection before?
    We stop for directions. We start driving again. Wait! Haven’t we been here twice already?!!
    Round and round and round we go. Stop for directions and begin the process again. Its now 8 am and we’ve been driving in circles for more than an hour.
    Now we are headed the wrong way on a one-way street. We all have our hands over our eyes as trucks, auto-rickshaws and bicycles zoom around us. Holy smokes!!!
    Suddenly sirens – and next thing you know a cop screeches to a halt in front of the car.
    Discussions ensue. And ensue. And ensue.
    After a bit of this, for posterity’s sake, DH decides to pull out her video camera, much to the chagrin of the cop.
    Finally there is a payoff and we are back searching for the temple, which is about 10 minutes from the Hotel Moti.
    When we finally arrive, the car company rep tells me we can look around and then they’ll take us to the Jami Masjid.
    “No,” I say, “we want to take the heritage walk. Its supposed to start here. Did they leave already?”
    The rep and driver look at each other. Are they not understanding me?
    “You look around here and we will show you some other things later.”
    “We want to take the heritage tour!” I insist. “We want to walk through the old town on the tour!”
    What is up here?
    “OK, ok, we’ll be back for you.” And with no explanation they take off.
    By this time, we have dubbed the rep and driver as “dumb and dumber.” Neither seems to know what was going on, how to get anywhere, or to be able to communicate with us or anyone else . . .
    It becomes apparent that the heritage tour is not starting from the temple. And here we are. So, we visit the Swaminarayan temple.
    It’s a large complex with conical decorated towers toped with flags. One of the monks greets us and invites us to look around. The big head swami is in residence, so there is lots of excitement!
    DD and I are informed that we cannot go down to where the monks are meeting for prayer, as they are forbidden to have contact with women. Wonder what will happen if they do . . . perhaps they go back a few life cycles or their karma is messed up or something? Anyway, we women are told we can go upstairs in the temple with the other women. Drum banging is beginning – something is about to happen.
    DH is escorted downstairs with the monks. He is introduced to the swami – a great honor for both the swami and DH. He is invited to pour the holy water. Awesome. He is presented with temple food and invited to the prayers.
    In the meantime, DD and I are upstairs with the women, who are now chanting and jingling bells and cymbals. Suddenly, a curtain is pulled back and we see the idols of Namarayandev, Radhakrishana, and Dhamedev-Bhaki Mati. The crowd goes wild. Well, sort of. They are enraptured. Its an exciting moment.
    After watching for a bit, DD and I wander back down to the plaza looking for DH. Dumb and dumber have now re-appeared, telling us they have found the municipal walking tour. DH is no where to be found, so dumb and dumber go looking for him. He’s still downstairs hanging out with his new BFF, the swami. He reappears with a monk – serious goodbyes follow. As he walks up the steps toward us, we can hear the monk evangelizing and telling him he only needs to devote 3 years and then he can become a monk himself. As DD and I listen and look on to this conversation we note how serious DH looks and wonder if he might be going off to join the order. Thank God, he decides to pass on the offer, as he joins us back in the van. Later he says, “if they only knew what an iconoclast I am!” I am relieved he will be staying with us.
    In any case, we are on our way, we hope, to catch up with the heritage tour. It becomes apparent dumb and dumber still don’t know where to go, even though they are pretending they do. Up this alley, down that one, u-turn – back down an alley. Eventually we stop and dumber gets out to, I guess, find the tour. Ten minutes later he’s back and tells us to follow him. To where, we don’t know. Down one street we go – and stop and wait! He’ll be back. In the meantime, we watch men dying yarn, which is strung out across several yards near the street. Its at least interesting to watch while we wait. Finally, some local man comes to the rescue and we follow him to find the tour. Its half-over, of course, but enjoy the rest of the walk. (Recommended.) If we only read the tea leaves about what was coming up next.

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    "But I will try for a couple more days and see how it goes. Seems like a lot of work for little interest. " Know how you feel - maybe we should ask Katie to post number of hits as well as number of replies? But I'm definitely reading along, eager to find out what disaster strikes next!

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    Great report. Thanks for writing. We encountered 450 school children from Ahmedabad on a school trip to see tigers. They were the friendliest and cutest kids you can imagine. Of course their cheerful greetings scared away the beasts. Maybe the urchins will grow up to be friendly adults and change the dour city.

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    Would love to hear more if you have the energy. We're heading to Golden Triangle/Rajasthan in a couple of weeks so we're absolutely obsessed about anything & everything Indian.

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    Great report. It seems company guys made every effort in joining you heritage walking tour even they were not familiar with the area. I appriciate their effort. I think you should appriciate their effort rather to make fun of them as they were not aware of the area and about walking tour as well.

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    "In any case, we are on our way, we hope, to catch up with the heritage tour. It becomes apparent dumb and dumber still don’t know where to go, even though they are pretending they do."
    I think they did. Isn't it?. Did you thank them. If not should.

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    Please don't stop -- your report is great. Love all the detail. Sometimes the best experiences, like yours at the Swaminarayan temple, are the unexpected ones. As you said at the beginning - "It was wonderful to be in a place where I couldn’t force or control anything, no matter how hard I might try." I love your writing style - feels like we're right there with you - and you have perfectly described India as a place of "irreconcilable contrasts." It almost seems that the more you see, the less you understand, which may be what is so fascinating and captivating. Can't wait to go back and see more. Please, please keep posting!

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    Fabulous report, I spent three months in India when I was in college (30 years ago), from your descriptions, it sounds like not much has changed. It's nice you brought your daughter with you, I think every young adult should be exposed to a country such as this at least once in their lifetime.

    The most powerful memory I have is walking off the plane in Bombay and being hit by the chaos and aroma of the country!

    Thanks so much for taking the time to write.

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    Thanks so much everyone for the encouragement to continue -- I very much appreciate it.
    Number of hits is a great idea thursdaysd! I hope Katie's team will consider it.
    Marija: You are right that the kids are friendly. We met a group of girls who were absolutely darling -- they had just had their hands hennaed and were excited to show them off. It was a sweet moment in Ahmedabad.
    msmango: I am envious. I wish it was me planning on leaving for India in 3 weeks. I hope you have a wonderful time -- and I will try to summon up the energy and get all of my report posted before you leave -- I understand what its like to immerse yourself in preparation. Enjoy! I love that time of anticpation.
    TravelIndia: I am happy you are enjoying my report. I agree those guys made an effort, but I don't believe that was enough. There was no excuse for the company to send people who were not familiar with the area. I had sent them a detailed itinerary months before we left -- they knew way ahead of time where we wanted to go and what we wanted to see -- and we had even included a link to a map of the heritage walk and the contact information. It is their job to know how to get their clients from place to place -- and they were getting paid a good deal of money for that service. In addition, those guys should have fessed up at the beginning that they did not know where they were going instead of wasting our precious holiday time driving us in circles. They did not communicate to us what was going on -- and the situation got worse, as you will see in this next installment. I make no apologies for making fun of them out of frustration. They put us in danger more than once. And as I said, they weren't the only ones at fault -- the company was at fault for sending a driver who didn't know the area -- and we found out later that they did have personnel who they could have sent who were familiar with the area. Perhaps the driver told them he knew the area, I don't know. In any case, the company did make up for it. But thank these guys? No way. They provided the worst experiences of our trip -- and they could have personally ameliorated the situation and didn't.
    CFW: I came away from this trip with more unexpected experiences than I've ever had anywhere -- and that is really the best part of travel -- even when its a bad experience! I love the fact that our filtered image of India -- through media, movies, books -- was completely shattered. We had our own personel adventure that no one else can duplicate -- which is a big reason I like to avoid structured tours. (That doesn't mean I demean those who do take structured tours -- in fact, I give those folks a ton of credit for leaving their homes and seeing the world! They just aren't for me.) I'm so glad you are enjoying the report -- thanks very much for posting. It means a lot to me.
    owlwoman: Like you, I am a big believer that all people -- and esecially young people -- should travel. It is, bar none, the best education and worth every dime -- its too bad that so many people fear the unknown and thereby don't even consider leaving their comfort zone.
    BTW, I wish I could bottle the aroma! I miss it!

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    Lost in Gujarat

    Dumb and dumber are waiting for us when we finish the walking tour of Ahmedabad. Dumber says that we can stop at a couple of the paces we desire to see, Adalaj vav and Patan, on our trip up to Udaipur. In the meantime, Dumber announces he is going to depart at the bus station and leave us in the capable hands of Dumb.

    Adalaj vav is supposed to be just 17 km from Ahmedabad. An hour and a half and about 10 stops for Dumb to ask directions later, we finally make it there. It is beautifully ornate. The vavs (step wells) of Gujarat are marvelous structures. They were built over a period from about the 11th to the 16th centuries for maintaining water supply during seasonal fluctuations. The wells also served as a respite from the daytime heat – one can descend down into the cool chambers and colonnades of the wells via stairways. Additionally, they are religious monuments that pay homage to the spiritual aspects of water. They are architecturally amazing, as the walls are breathtakingly and intricately carved with forms of gods, people, animals, flowers, leaves, birds, and fish. We are absolutely awed by the beauty of the place. After Adalaj vav, we head on to Rani ki vav in Patan, which is about 100 km away. Now, we have been prepared to expect travel in India to take longer than we should anticipate due to the road conditions etc., so it does not strike us as worrisome that it takes a few hours to get there. What we should be noting and interpreting as a bad sign is the fact that Dumb is stopping for directions every 20 minutes or so.
    After an hour or so of this driving and stopping, we start asking him, “is everything ok?” His muffled reply is always, “ah yeths, matham.” But nothing more is offered. I start wondering if he really does speak English, as has been advertised to us.
    Eventually we do find Patan, which has even more ornate decoration. The elaborate carvings are stunning. It would make a gorgeous movie set. Really. I can’t think of what kind of movie plot would work here, but the cinematography would be beautiful.
    After about a half-hour visit, we are back on the road to Udaipur. Dumb has decided to circle around the town instead of driving through it, as the roads were quite jammed on the way in.
    Dumb is now stopping every ten minutes to ask directions. Its getting to be a routine -- He stops, discusses, gets back in the car and says, “Just twenty more minutes to the highway.”
    As the sun is beginning to set, I see a sign that says “Ahmedabad 79 km.”
    Good Lord! What?!!! We are only an hour or so out of Ahmedabad?!! Dumb has been driving around in circles for hours. The farming villages and dusty roads we are passing by start looking very familiar. Have we been here before? Shades of driving in the city of Ahmedabad are coming back to me.

    It is getting darker and now I am really getting worried. How many Fodor posters have written, “Whatever you do, don’t drive in the dark in India!” Now that it is dark, Dumb is beeping and flashing his headlights almost constantly to warn the vehicles and carts and animals that are approaching us head on. The road turns from two lanes into a single-lane road – now sand is starting to cover the single-lane – now the road is turning to dirt – and now there is no road and we are turning around in a tiny village.

    I am beginning to think we will spend the night in the van. We have no idea where we are and Dumb can’t seem to follow any of the directions that he is getting from the dozens of Gujaratis we are stopping to ask.

    Worry has turned to panic. I think we will be stuck in Gujarat for the rest of our lives. I envision moving into a straw-roofed hut with cows and a pit and never seeing a refrigerator again.

    Finally, it is completely dark out and we are in the middle of NOWHERE. We can’t see ANYTHING except the dim beams of our own headlights. It is about as dark as any place I have ever been. It is entirely isolated out here.

    I have one hopeful thought: we have granola bars, so we won’t starve.

    Finally, we come upon another village. Dumb gets out of the car and is out talking to a few of the villagers for about 15 minutes. DH ventures out of the car, not knowing what to do, as he doesn’t speak the local language (and later we find out, neither did Dumb – and the locals did not speak Hindi or English – and the road signs were almost all in the local language!) Though a process of very broken English and sign language, our plight is finally communicated. God bless him, a local guy with a motor bike offers to let us follow him to the highway. He zooms off into the dark, and we follow him in high speed pursuit. It is so terrifying that I would now be happy to live in the mud hut without a fridge, because every two or three seconds I see my life pass before my eyes. Surely we are going to die by hitting a person, a cow, a camel, a goat, a truck, a motorbike – everything is coming at us – and we are dodging each obstacle by the skin of our teeth just trying to stay in site of our escort.

    After about a half hour, the motor bike guy we are following points to the right and waves goodbye, and dumb announces, "highway!" But no, this nightmare does not yet come to an end and we apparently still need 4-5 sets of directions to get us there.

    Finally, we DO get to the highway and are immensely relieved to realize we will not have to sleep in the car in the middle of Gujarat. It is still a four-hour drive to Udaipur. Dumb is SO tired (after all, he picked us up at the train station at 4:45 am) – and actually seems a bit ill by now – he is running the A/C full blast, keeps opening the windows, brushing back his hair, sniffling. DH makes him stop periodically for air and a break, as he is now driving really erratically -- alternating between driving like a at out of hell and then slowing to a crawl every time he has to pass a truck. I can sense that DH, usually completely unruffled, is coming unhinged.

    Will we make it to Udiapur? Or will we run off the road or be hit by a truck?
    This is the most disorienting, terrifying and exhausting night.

    Well, since I am posting this, you have figured out the good news: our long nightmare comes to an end and we do make it to our hotel – alive, but rattled to the bone. We vow that we cannot continue our trip with Dumb as our driver. Tomorrow we will call the company and fire them.

    Thank God we are at the hotel – it’s a charming place, really. If only we had been able to enjoy it five or six hours earlier. We literally collapse into our beds thanking Jesus we are still alive to continue our trip . . . and our lives. . . .

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    Gasp.

    This old report will help you to understand where TravelIndia ia coming from:

    http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/trip-to-india-in-december-booked.cfm?21

    I thought we'd got rid of him. I warn you, he will reply - and reply - and reply, in increasingly shrill tones. If he does, just ignore him. A quick E-mail to Katie - Editor will remove him from your excellent report.

    Wow - what an adventure. Horrible. Terrifying. Trapped. I could see it coming back in Ahmedabad. I'm blown out and horrified - but not in the least surprised. Keep writing.

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    i found your trip report from the e-mail sent by fodors.
    i just finished reading about your bombay visit. made me very home sick as i come from malabar hill.
    sadly, i also know of a friend who was shot by the terrorists at the oberoi and survived by hiding behind behind the water tanks on the terrace.
    i am going the savour the rest of your report tonight at leisure.

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    travelaw, Well, this was not one of those wonderful experiences that you just stumble upon. Sounds like a nightmare! Who was the agency that gave you this driver? Four Wheel Drive India? Please let us all know so we can avoid them -- at least outside of Rajasthan.

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    i'm loving the report....i'm also trying to decide what i would do had i been stuck with dumb.....

    i often have a similar experience when travelling with gpanda, but i take control and get things back to normal..

    ain't india great!!!

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    I've had a mini-version of trav's experience. It was actually terrifying - easily my worst experience in India so far. I'll bet the car company does a huge grovel, sends their best driver [the one they had up their sleeve all along] and lies their way out of it. Of course, they already have trav's money in advance.

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    Spot on dog!
    You raise a good question, Bob. What can you do when you are in such a situation?


    Udaipur to Jodhpur and a visit with Mr. Singh and Mallet

    I wake up in the Jagat Niwas Palace hotel. We have a gorgeous view of the Lake Palace from our room in Udaipur. Just divine.

    I manage to get our cell phone working and call the car company. I explain everything, ream them out for sending unprepared personnel, and demand that they send a new driver. If they do not, I explain in very certain terms, we will find other transportation for the balance of our trip. After a back and forth about what we want and hearing assurances that the driver we have is good and has never had a complaint against him, which means not one whit to me after what he put us through, DH tells me to pass the phone.
    OMG, he plays the life card: “if anything should happen to my wife or my daughter, I am holding you responsible,” he says. The company agrees to send us a new driver. And, they did. I have to give them credit, because they went through major logistical maneuvers to get the new driver to us by the next morning. And, I have to say, the new driver, Ramesh Meena, was fantastic. Not just good. Really good. Excellent English. Perfectly professional and extremely helpful. Friendly, but not overbearing, and a super attitude. THAT is the response I had hoped for, and they delivered. Kudos to them for finally admitting to a screw-up and fixing what was shaping up to be a real mess. And, thank God. I wasn’t relishing the thought of sucking up holiday time by dealing with finding a new car company.

    I won’t go into all the wonderful sights we saw in Udaipur. It’s a charming city. The fort is marvelous. The boat trip on Lake Pichola is extremely pleasant. The Jagdish Temple is very interesting (we happened to be there during a festival). This is a place to slow down and enjoy the ambience and just relax for a few days.

    After Udaipur we drove to Jodhpur, stopping at Ranakpur along the way. As an aside, I think there have been some questions on the forum about this road. It is still under construction in some spots, but otherwise is almost finished and is quite good. Actually, we found the roads to be in better shape than we expected throughout most of our trip.

    Along the route to Rankapur we come across an interesting water wheel driven by cattle. It must be a regular stop for the tourism drivers, as a couple of other cars also stop while we are there. Out of one of the cars steps a group of two older couples. I will name one of the couples Fred and Mable. They look elegant, rather rakish. Fred is happily clicking away, taking photos of the well, the cows, the cow driver, the nearby temple, while Mable gratingly barks orders at him.
    “Freeiad, look at this.
    “Freeiad, come here!”
    “Freeiad, why are you taking a photo of that? We don’t need a photo of that – take a photo of this.”
    Fred ignores Mable, which just spurs her on more.
    “Freeiad, are you listening to me?”
    “Freeiad, don’t go far.” (There is no where to go!)
    “Freeiad, don’t you think we ought to get back on the road.”
    My word, woman, WTF?!!! Clamp it, would ya?!!
    Its how to ruin a perfectly lovely spot. Ugh.

    Well who do DD and I run into in the women’s room at Ranakpur? You got it. I didn’t actually see her, but that voice was unmistakable.
    “Jeeean, guess what?!” booms the voice from one of the stalls.
    “What Mable?” from another stall.
    “Can you believe this?!! I’ve forgotten my whizz in the car!”
    No response.
    “What am I going to do? This is just awful. I can’t go get it from the car now! Oh dear.”
    Jean, pretty sarcastically: “Well, I guess you’ll just have to rough it, Mable.”
    “Well!” Chest heave.
    DD and I are washing our hands and rolling our eyes at each other. What is whizz anyway? What an irritating personality.

    Ranakpur is delightful. The carving is sumptuous. Monks are roaming the temple, talking to visitors and guilting them into donating to their cause. DH declines, as do I. Apparently they cornered DD while she was somewhere on her own and she forked over some Rs. Rs she had gotten from my wallet earlier, of course. The monk seeks me out later to tell me what a beautiful daughter I have, and how she has “purity” and how a child only becomes that way because her parents have raised her to be that way and I have imparted to her my “inner beauty.” Uh-huh. Flattery will get you know where my friend. Besides, I have no cash left – she already gave it to you. I do have to admit though, these guys are really very good at what they do.

    We stop for lunch and as our unfortunate luck has it, are seated next to Mable and friends. Mable is telling everyone what to eat and how to eat it, turning to the waiter and complimenting the food, because “its not too spicy – you know, Indians eat such spicy food!” – and other ridiculous statements, while pontificating on anything and everything. Everyone in the place is shooting glances at each other. We are placing bets on where she is from, which I won’t reveal so as not to insult anyone. Anyway, Mable is a piece of work. I think her friends deserve an award.

    BTW, the food was barely passable. If I remembered the name of the place I would tell, you, but I didn’t write it down.

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    We drive on to Jodhpur. And before we get there, I must comment on the Indian “goods carrier” trucks. They’re fascinating! Peter Maxx would have loved these trucks! They are painted in colorful psychedelic designs – florescent patterns and motifs festooned with chunks of tinsel, new year’s decorations, garlands, and sometimes twinkling colored lights.
    “Horn, please, thank you”
    And
    “Use dippers at night”
    are illustrated in swirling calligraphy on the rear end.
    They’re attention-grabbing, but don’t stare too long or they’ll mow you down!

    We arrive at Ratan Vilas, our hotel in Jodhpur, a lovely heritage hotel. The staff is shockingly laid back. We are told there is no need to check in – just go to room and rest – we’ll deal with the details later. I LOVE that attitude. The hotel is a pleasant respite from the craziness of the road outside its walls. It has a bit of a floral fragrance, wafting through the air from the gardens that surround it. The place harkens back to the Raj era – the walls are lined with family photos, many with a polo theme. The rooms are quite attractive and our room in particular has what I would call a luxurious bathroom. (And I’ve stayed in some very nice hotels with some very nice bathrooms.) It feels great to sink into the huge tub and soak off the dust from the road. OK, I’ll stop there before we conjure up any frightful images!

    Later, we wander down to the veranda and order some masala chai.

    An elderly gentleman in a grey zip-up jacket, a tad tubby, wobbley and shaking a bit, who reminds me somewhat of Alfred Hitchcock, strolls over toward us.
    “Good evening” he says in that enchanting Indian/English accent.
    “Good evening,” we say in unison.
    “Do you mind if I join you?”
    “Of course, please join us,” I say.
    Like a judge taking the bench, he seats himself in the deep-cushioned rattan chair.
    We are all wondering who this is.
    “Where are you from?” he asks.
    “The States,” DH says.
    “Oh.” He purses his lips. “Welcome to India.” He hesitates and adds, “How are you enjoying your trip?”
    “Thank you, we are enjoying it very much,” I say, which really is the truth, even though I feel like I am lying, as I am still reeling a bit from our terrifying adventure in Gujarat a few days ago. Why does this guy make me feel like I am on trial?!!
    The gentleman finally smiles, a warm smile, which puts me more at ease.
    “Where are you from?” I ask, assuming he is another guest.
    “Here. My name is Bharat Singh. This is my hotel.”
    “Ah, its really lovely.”
    “Yes, it was our family home. We still live here, but, you see now we welcome guests to share it with us.” He sighs. “You know, I used to raise horses, but no longer. I can’t take care of them any more. Its too expensive and time consuming.”
    Apparently, the hotel used to keep a stable of horses for guests to use. Sadly, they sold all the horses in the last year or so. He waxes poetic about raising horses.
    “A good horse must be ridden every day,” he tells us. “They must be well-trained to maintain a good temperament.” He beams with satisfaction as he remembers.
    For a couple of hours we sat with Mr. Singh, drank unending cups of masala chai, and enjoyed hearing about his horses, his previous way of life, and about polo.
    Mr. Singh’s adorable and adoring little black dog, Mallet, sat obediently nearby.
    Abruptly, Mr. Singh rises and announces, “It is time Mallet.”
    Every evening Mr. Singh puts a little plaid doggie jacket on Mallet, which Mallet doesn’t like, as evidenced by his low-level groaning, but he tolerates it, obviously for Mr. Singh’s sake.

    Later, we find out from reading the hotel brochure, that Mr. Singh is the grandson of a Jodhpuri royal, Maharaja Ratan Singh (hence the name of the hotel). This is his former home, built in 1920. Maharaja Singh was a fine horseman and polo player. Obviously, his love of horses and polo runs has been imparted to his grandson.

    We see Mr. Singh a few more times over our visit and Mallet is always tagging along. Mr. Singh wanders the property, moving from a chair on one side of the veranda, to a table on the lawn, to the garden, and back to the other side of the veranda. He seems restless. I think he really misses his horses.

    We spent several days in Jodphur, which turned out to be one of my favorite cities on this trip. The huge and magnificent Merangarh Fort was well worth a good bit of time – the audio tour, of which I’m usually not a fan, was excellent there. Jaswant Thada, just down the road from the fort, was worth a stop, and a visit to the market surrounding the clock tower was tons of fun, even though the touts are constantly in your face selling everything from mint tea to saris to spices and plastic ware. We bought a few things and enjoyed interacting with the merchants – Richard Gere is very well-known here – he’s apparently been to everybody’s shop! LOL.

    Other than at the hotel (which was quite good, actually) we ate at “On the Rocks” – a restaurant that catered mostly to Westerners. The setting is pretty cool – tables set in a grove of trees surrounded by rocks and little footbridges over streams and torch lined hallways. The food was OK, but quite frankly, I have never seen so many flies in my life, which kinda grossed me out. It was a challenge to keep the food covered. We had hoped to eat over at the Umaid Bhavan Palace, an impressive place – one of the world’s largest private residences/hotel – but were told that it is now restricted to hotel guests only – I suspect that policy was only recently put in place by the Taj folks after the terrorist attacks. We visited the museum there, which was ok – probably worth a miss if you have limited time – but did enjoy looking at the present Maharaja of Jodhpur’s car collection.

    Our last night in Jodhpur, we relax on the veranda at the hotel, reading passages to one another from our various books, and later watch “Touch of Evil” on DD’s portable DVD player. Tomorrow we head deeper into the desert.

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    Still loving this report! Congratulations on getting the driver situation sorted.

    BTW, I suspect moaning Mable's "whizz was like this: www.go-girl.com (Never used one myself, but if the thigh muscles ever give out...)

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    Thanks for another episode. I'm glad the road from Udaipur to Ranakpur is no longer the disaster it was last year. You didn't miss much by being excluded from Umaid Bhavan. I'll always carry a grudge against them for not letting us sit in the section with heat lamps on a frigid evening since we were not hotel guests!

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    Wonderful report again. I can't wait to see Jodhpur and Udaipur for myself. As for Four Wheel Drive, they gave me the option of paying at the end of our trip (in cash to the driver)or paying by credit card in Jaipur 3 days into the trip. I guess I should do the cash option to give myself a way out--just in case.

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    Hey trav: great stuff. In haste: I'm at Kolkata airport with no time to reply properly. I'll be in Mumbai tonight. Let's see if I get a chance to use that choo-choo train at Elephanta. Given my past history I'll doubtless get diverted on the way.

    This really is one of all-time best trip India reports. Incredibly useful. Bravo.

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    thurdaysd: that is an interesting contraption. I can think of a couple of places it would have been helpful on this trip, but like you, hopefully I won't have to resort to it any time soon!
    rhkkmk: I wish I had the time and money for my own return visit! Actually, I wish I had enough money so any of us could travel whenever we felt like it. Now THAT would be wonderful.
    Marija: I can't believe they treated you differently in the restaurant just because you wern't staying in the hotel!!! I could sense from the attitude of some of the staff at that place that I was glad I wasn't staying there. They actually had someone "escort" us through the museum -- it was really rather annoying. I felt like I was being pushed through the place. Not cool.
    msmango: If you're just using R4WD in Rajasthan, you probably won't have a problem. If you want, request the driver they gave us, Ramesh Meena, who we liked just fine. Still, paying on the last day keeps your options open -- always a good idea.
    dogster: you really are a sweetheart. Thank you. I hope you have a fab time in Mumbai. I really liked it there and would like to get back. If you don't get to Elephanta, its not the end of the world -- there is so much else to do in Mumbai -- I could have easily spent a few more days just wandering around looking at people. Let me know how you like Gordon House. When our plans for the Taj fell through, we wanted to stay there, but they didn't have room, so we ended up at Suba Palace next door. Gordon House looked nice from the outside. Its a great location.

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    The Dude in the Desert

    The trip to Jaisalmer went well. The road was actually pretty good. Other than our first night hotel glitch, which I mentioned at the top of this report, we settled in to the Taj Rawal Kot for several enjoyable days. The weather was as perfect as it could be – sunny and refreshingly breezy. Jaisalmer, we’re told, hasn’t seen rain in over three years.

    The fort at Jaisalmer is right out of Arabian nights and has an aromatically exotic atmosphere – the place really does feel as if you are stepping into a tale of conquest, opium and veiled romance. Maybe its because the cobbled streets of the fort are still alive with the hustle and bustle of everyday life, but unlike some of the other forts we visited, the Jaisalmer fort felt more vibrant. The fort is crumbling in spots due evidently to heavy tourist traffic, but we saw few visitors while we were there. I’m surprised that it hadn’t blown away long ago – the sandstone construction looks fragile and ephemeral. We spent the good part of a day wandering though the palace, admiring the ornately carved windows and balconies, visiting the temples and just drifting through the alleys and passageways of the fort.

    There is enough to keep you entertained sightseeing-wise in Jaisalmer for a couple of days. In addition to the fort, it is worth visiting the city surrounding the fort and finding some of the elaborate havelis, which are impressive for their lavish latticework. For some strange reason I really enjoyed Bada Bagh. We were totally alone there, which contributed to the adventurous feel of the place. The cenotaphs of these former rulers once looked out over the desert, but now stand in the shadow of a huge windmill farm built by the Rajasthan Mines and Minerals Company, an unusually apt juxtaposition in this country of paradox.

    One of our days in Jaisalmer we decided to drive through the Desert National Park to the village of Khuri for the perfunctory camel safari. Having been on camel safaris before, I wasn’t keen on the idea (I hate that my inner thighs and butt command my attention for the next couple of post-ride days!) but DD begged to do it, and what DD wants, DD usually gets. The drive through the park was very interesting – though it is mostly scrub, we saw plenty of wildlife – lizards scurrying across the road, flocks of large birds, a blackbuck, gazelles – and we even stopped to take close up photos of a desert fox. I think the fox was as curious about us as we were of him. He stopped and stared at us, just as we were doing the same. When we got out of the car, he moved back a bit, but stayed focused on us. As we moved closer to him, he moved back, just about exactly the same distance. Has anyone ever noticed that animals seem to have a sense of proportional appropriate distance? I mean, if they aren’t high-tailing it, of course.

    When we get to the recommended guesthouse in Khuri we are offered tea and enter into negotiations over the price of our excursion.
    While we are waiting for tea, our driver whispers, “Osama Bin Laden is here.”
    “Huh?”
    “Look over there,” he nods his head toward the food preparation area.
    Sure enough, standing out amongst the guesthouse staff like the Burj Dubai, is an imposing figure with that familiar face sporting a long, graying stringy beard and Betty Davis eyes.
    OBL notices us looking at him and he immediately slinks off into one of the straw-roofed huts.
    Scratching our heads wondering about this chimera just miles from the border of Pakistan, we saddle up our camels and head out into the desert with our camel man and his two young apprentices.

    The camel ride is not so bad, as long as we aren’t going downhill. I’m not sure how long we pound the sand, but eventually we come across a desolate desert village. As we alight our camels, we are accosted by a throng of desert children. As children go, they are not the most attractive, probably because they are prematurely weathered by the desert sun and a hard isolated life. The dusty little lambs run around us, tugging our clothing, putting their hands to their mouths and kissing our feet, so surely they see tourists fairly regularly. This is one thing I hate about India. It just breaks your heart. They mug for the camera and giggle every time we show them their photos. We walk around their village, visit one of their homes and meet some of their moms. Where are the men? We never do find out.

    After this brief visit we remount our camels and ride out to the dunes. The camel man, who is dressed in a colorful red flowered cape, finds a lovely spot for us to stop and watch the Thar sunset. As we sink into the cool, silken sand, a young man breathlessly runs up and plops down beside us. His bag is dripping, which I gullibly point out to him.
    “Cold beer anyone?” It’s a beer walla out in the desert!
    “Chips?”
    You have to chuckle at the ingenuity of these people.
    We buy a few beers, lean back in the sand and as the sun sets we discuss politics, religion and sex with the camel driver. Really. Anyone else find that its so much easier to talk about these taboo subjects with complete strangers?

    After the sun sets, we are back on the camels and head back to Khuri for the requisite desert meal and entertainment around the campfire. Its pretty cold, so we are provided quilts to wrap around us. As we are enjoying festivities, the tall, shadowy figure, also mummified a quilt, slides into a chair on the other side of the fire. He sits there in stony silence, peering out from his blanket, as the musicians serenade us and the dancer twirls around the courtyard. We are finally all asked to join in, including OBL, who appears reluctant, but joins in, and we find ourselves boogying around the flames with this reserved person who does, remarkably, look like OBL. After dancing we are served dinner: potatoes, rice, dal, and desert beans, which looks like a pile of twigs and tastes a bit like cooked, spiced hay. The dinner is surprisingly good, but I always think everything tastes better when you cook and eat it outside. We wash it all down with some more beer and, even though its pretty chilly, take pleasure in the evening air. Just before we are ready to hit the road back to Jaisalmer, they turn off all the lights and we watch the moon come up. The view of the milky way is spectacular out here and I think about all the generations of people who saw the sky this way for thousands of years, and how it is lost to most of the world now.

    We thank our hosts, and get ready to leave, when OBL approaches us. Turns out he is French Canadian and speaks no English. We manage to find out that his name is Jacques and he is from the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec, but nothing more, except that he is a shy, gentle soul.

    In the car on the way back to Jaisalmer, the driver tells us he found out Jacques’ sad tale from the guesthouse folks. Jacques arrived alone in Delhi with the intent of traveling in India for a couple of months. He hired a tourist agent, who provided him with a fantastic itinerary fulfilling all of Jacques’ dreams. The agent told Jacques he needed to pay up front in cash and that the trip would cost him $7,500, not coincidentally exactly the amount of money Jacques had in his pocket. Jacques turned over the cash and the agent packed him into a car with a driver and Jacques was off on his Indian odyssey.

    You probably know where this is going. The driver took Jacques out to the desert, dropped him off and disappeared. Now he is out of money, abandoned in the middle of the desert with no way to communicate with his loved ones and no resources to get back to Delhi and wait for his return flight home. The guesthouse folks have taken pity on him and have invited him to stay there and eat with them. He’s been out there for two weeks. I wish I could do something, but what? Our driver decides that he will call the Canadian embassy to try to get the poor man some help. What a lesson for us all.

    Next: Rats! Why’d it have to be rats?!!

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    Thanks very much Marija and msmango for sticking it out with me. Eight days only msmango? yikes! You will be packing in a lot in a short time. I had to bend all the rules at work to get a big chunk of time off for India -- which really sucks. Its one of my biggest gripes about USA business practices -- even if you've earned the time, its almost impossible to get more than 2 weeks off at a time, which just isn't enough time to properly visit some places. BTW, this will probably be it for a few days, as I have to go out of town on business. I'll try to post the final few chapters next weekend, if you're still interested.

    On the way to Bikaner, we stopped at Khichan, a small village that has become a winter resort for the demoiselle cranes, who have flown here from Siberia and Mongolia. There are thousands of them surrounding a pitiful little half-dried up lake. It seems very odd that they would pick this spot, but apparently the local Jains started feeding them some years ago and the cranes have come back each year in increasing numbers. Its really quite a sight.

    As we pull up to the edge of the lake to take in a view of the flocks of birds, our car is chased by a flock of another sort – a pack of village children. They accost us, begging for money, chocolate, pens . . . . As much as it pains us, we have figured out that it is best not to give anything to the little lambs, as it just encourages them to beg more – and you can’t possibly give something to each of them. The reality of this is confirmed in the form of another car – a Dutch couple who has stopped there at the same time. They’ve made the mistake of giving 5 Rs to one child, and are now being crushed by the grabbing, scrumming mob. The kids are tugging on them, reaching into the open doors of the car and pulling stuff out, crawling on top of the hood. They barely make it out of there, slowly pushing upstream through the crowd, tires squealing when they finally clear the horde. Life is just so unfair – and so much of a crap shoot of circumstances – and situations like this continue to remind us that we should be eternally grateful for all with which we are blessed.

    At some point on the trip, we have to stop for a passing train. If I didn’t find it so amusing, what happens at a train crossing in India would be entirely exasperating. The railroad crossing arms are lowered – way ahead of the train’s impending arrival – and instead of waiting patiently in line, every vehicle on the road – trucks, cars, rickshaws, and camel carts – crowd into every available space on both side of the gates. In the meantime, motorcycle and motor bike riders are squeezing their way up to the crossing and playing limbo under the gates, calculating whether they will make it across before the train comes barreling through. Once it does, and the arms are finally raised back up, there is no where to move, as everyone is facing each other down. It takes an hour to get sorted out – and we are just one car behind the front of the line. Its pure madness!

    Just a little while later I remark to DD that you really can’t be fainthearted to travel in India. At that very moment, we glance out the window to see the decaying carcass of a cow on the road – eyes bulging out and staring into space, with all its fur stripped away, muscle and sinew glinting in the sun. The sight of it was jarring and horrifying. I guess it must be my Western sensibility, but it seems to me that if you really hold cows sacred, wouldn’t you keep them off the highway?

    Before we get to the hotel, we make one last stop: the camel breeding farm. I’ve kinda had my fill of camels, but the place is rather interesting. We learn a lot of facts about camels and camel breeding. I now know more about camels than 99.99% of Americans. One tip: camel ice cream is an acquired taste.

    When we finally get to Hotel Lallgarh Palace we find it to be an intriguing place to stay – just don’t change money there (see the top of this report). I really enjoyed dinner in the courtyard restaurant – ordered the meat platter and it was delicious. The garlic naan was also very tasty. Service was excellent. If you end up staying there – or if you go there for dinner – do check out the bar and the billiard room.

    There are two things that make me squeamish and that I find really disgusting.
    Cockroaches, which are absolutely nasty.
    And . . . rats.

    Thirty kilometers from Bikaner is the village of Deshnok. We arrive to what looks like a carnival – in fact it is just a typical day outside of the Karni Mata temple, a.k.a. the Rat Temple. Surrounding the temple are booths selling all sorts of sweets and souvenirs of the type you would see at a fair. Sid (short for Siddarth), our guide, buys some prasad (a fluorescent yellow sweet cake) to feed the rats. We bring along some blackened bananas left over from a breakfast buffet a few days ago. We remove our shoes and deposit them at the shoe stand across from the temple entrance – the location of which is rather annoying because then you have to walk in bare feet over wet sand and gritty mud and then through metal detectors to get to the temple entrance. (Tip: you might want to bring a pair of socks you can slip on inside.) The entranceway is resplendent with a beautifully carved marble ediface and huge silver doors.

    Sid tells us the story of the temple: in the a 14th century a girl named Karni Bai was believed to have supernatural powers and was able to cure illnesses and ailments including snakebites and blindness. She found favor with the ruling family of Bikaner, and, as Karni Mata, was thought to be the re-incarnation of the warrior goddess Durga. Karni Mata asked Yuma, the god of death, to bring back the dead child of one of her kinsmen. Yuma told her he could not bring back the child because he had already been reincarnated, so Karni Mata made an agreement with Yuma that from that point forward, her kin would be reborn as rats until they could be reincarnated back into her kindred. In the meantime, they would live in this temple and be worshipped with sincere devotion.

    Once inside, I am repulsed as I gingerly tread on the slippery, black and white tiled floor, which is heavily sprinkled with crumbles of yellow prasad, gifts from earlier pilgrims, and loads of rat poop. We enter the inner temple, where we see large bowls encircled with pink-eared brown furry rats drinking milk that has been provided by the temple priests and visiting devotees. Fortunately, these rats are not the huge like the ones I used to see rampaging on New York City subway tracks, not as if that helps alleviate my squeamishness. Scores of rats, 20,000 according to Sid, live here. OMG, a rat scampers across my bare feet! Sid says I am blessed (Really? Cuz that is not my idea of a blessing). He also tells us that there is one white rat and if you spot that white rat, you are especially blessed.

    I am disgusted by a dead rat lying in the corner. Other rats are scurrying over and around it. I point it out to Sid, who tells me that if anyone kills a rat by stepping on it he is expected to offer a life-size silver rat as a replacement. I have two things to say about this: first, I didn’t step on the dead rat – he was already lying there, so I hope its death is not pinned on me; and second, what is actually the purpose of replacing the dead rat with one made of precious metal – isn’t the rat going on to a new and better life? I walk even more lightly and carefully so as to avoid the silver rat fine.

    I turn around to find DD freaking out – ducking and letting out a shriek. In spite of the nets and wire grills that cover the temple, she has been dive-bombed by a pigeon. And this plop was no small splatter – it is so mammoth that it covers her hair and jacket. Poor thing is distraught. We peel her jacket off, wipe off her hair as best as we can and get ready to leave, but she wants to at least feed the bananas we’ve brought to the rats, bless her little heart.

    We walk into the temple courtyard and see a man lying face down on his stomach licking – yes LICKING – the floor. How revolting! Sid explains that some people believe that licking the rat urine will bring them supreme blessings (more like a deadly virus, I think to myself). Over in the corner, another pilgrim reclines in sleep while a couple of rats curl up in his hair. Others are lighting candles and kneeling in prayer.

    DD breaks off pieces of banana and starts feeding it to the rats. The rats go wild, climbing over each other and fighting each other to hang on to a piece of it for himself. Its really quite amusing. Just before we leave, out of the corner of my eye, I spot the white rat slurping up milk out of a bowl. Turns out I am blessed, in spite of my rat paranoia. As I said, India is not for the fainthearted, and the rat temple is no exception.

    Another tip: bring lots of antiseptic wet wipes!

    Even now I shudder just thinking about this experience!

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    I'm still reading along, too. You have more guts than I do - I didn't visit the rat temple, and have absolutely no desire to do so! (I've seen video and photos, that's quite enough.)

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    Yeah, I'm here. Yup, marija, it sounds like Doggie heaven. I love the taste of rat urine. Big smooch trav - I'm really pleased your report is getting the attention it deserves.

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    Thank you so much guys! I am so touched that you are spending your time reading my tales.
    Dogster, I swoon, in spite of the doggie breath.

    My business trip has been delayed by a snow storm. Yay! So, as I sit and warm myself by the fireplace, I am happy to type in my next episode. I hope you enjoy it.

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    From Shekawati to Jaipur – and Bram Stoker call your office!

    About half-way between Bikaner and Jaipur, we arrive in the grimy town of Fatehpur, and park across from a counterfeit DVD/CD store on the main drag. We mosey down the dusty, pot-holed street toward the bus station/market. The place is jam-packed. As the busses depart the crude depot, men and boys squat and hang on every space available on the bus roofs and sides. It looks terribly dangerous. There are no tourists here, and we are greeted with turned heads and stares. Lunch is at the forefront of our minds, and we find a grubby-looking little hole-in-the wall place run by a father and his two young boys. We get a grin out of the younger boy who says, “Hello white people.” He is scolded by his father, who pulls out a greasy order pad and tells us to sit. DD gives me a look that says, “we’re going to eat HERE?” Its a small restaurant, only about four tables, but it smells fantastic. We ordered a round of cold limcas and a bunch of potato and onion stuffed parathas, which are served with bowls of fresh yogurt. Delicious. (What I wouldn’t give for a freshly made paratha right now!)

    The proprietor helps us hire a street boy/guide so we can find the painted havelis. Gopal, who looks no more than eleven, speaks almost perfect English and he escorts back down the main street to one of the abandoned havelis. The old mansion is being guarded by a young man sitting on its steps. Gopal tells him we would like to see it and he tells us that for 100 Rs a person he will unlock it. The fee seems a little steep to us, but, what the heck, that’s why we’re here. Inside the haveli are courtyards and balconies elaborately painted with brightly colored frescos showing religious scenes and images of early industrialization. The house was obviously formerly inhabited by a wealthy family, but other than the occasional visitor, is now abandoned and deteriorating. Gopal turns out to be a great little guide – he steers us to havelis all over Fatehpur and even allows us to use his family’s toilet, an adventure in and of itself (my friends can’t imagine this toilet in their worst nightmares!).

    We spent a few days wandering in Shekawati – after Fatehpur we trooped around the town of Mandawa, where we stayed in the Castle Mandawa, and then visited Nawalgarh, which had the best surviving examples of the painted havelis. These communities, formerly on a branch of the silk road, must have been spectacular in their day. Some of the havelis have families of squatters who take care of them the best they can, but it is truly unfortunate that most of the havelis are crumbling and collapsing – they’d make a great rehab project for a university. I was delighted to see this article in the Wall Street Journal on a restored haveli in Nawalgarh just after we returned: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123505976996423459.html Hopefully this means there is some developing interest in saving these mansions and restoring them to their former glory. They would be real gems for Indian tourism.

    After Shekawati, we drove down to Jaipur, which surprised me, as I didn’t expect it to be such a big city – I haven’t compared the population figures, but it seemed much, much larger than Washington, DC, where I work. I won’t go into all the places to see in Jaipur -- our visit to the old city, including the Hawa Mahal, the City Palace, and Jantar Mantar was very pleasant. We had a great thali at LMB restaurant, where we also stocked up on some sweets. And, of course, we rode elephants up to the Amber Fort:

    “Scuse me, Madam”
    “Madam, look here!
    “Hellow!”
    Those photo guys really get on your nerves. At every turn of the pathway up to the fort, they are there, “Excuse me!” trying to steal your glance.
    We roam the fort for a couple of hours (great 5 Rs toilet after the exit, by the way, so good I would have easily paid 100 Rs for it!) and find our vehicle in the car park. We drive down and away from the fort back toward Jaipur and suddenly there is a motor bike next to the car, its driver and passenger waving wildly and beeping at us. They are weaving all around us, flapping their arms trying to get our attention. At first, we thought maybe we hit them or someone else. We realize they are shaking something at us – it turns out to be a photo from our elephant ride up to the fort! You’ve got to be kidding me! These guys are so good that they matched us to our photo through the tinted windows of the car as we drove past them. And they don’t give up. Do you know they actually followed us for miles waving that photo at us? Its really quite ridiculous, but you have to laugh at their persistence – I suppose it gets them sales, as it is quite impressive!

    One evening in Jaipur we decide to go to Choki Dhani for dinner, which is like an Indian Disneyland. When you enter they adorn your forehead with a bindi and throw marigold petals over you. One part of the restaurant is a kind of amusement park with dancers, puppeteers, henna artists, elephant and camel rides, palm reading, traditional smoking pipes, ayurvedic massage, a maze, a replica safari, and tastes of traditional food. It feels a bit contrived to me, but I suppose if you can’t see these things in person in your Indian travels, it would be very entertaining to walk around and see/sample all these things packed into one convenient evening. Putting aside my cynicism, I have to admit I had a fun time – mostly by watching the delight of the children of the wealthy Indian families that flock here. Dinner is okay – you sit on the ground at low tables and are served traditional foods thali style (LMB was better).

    Afterward we visit the Raj Mandir movie theater to see the latest Bollywood flick. What fun! It was my first Bollywood flick and I really enjoyed the upbeat plot, the singing and dancing, the saturated color and especially the audience participation. They clap and cheer for their favorite actors, sing along (the soundtrack, we’re told, is released ahead of the film so people become familiar with the songs), and loudly react to the story line. This is a great way to spend an evening.

    Our driver Ram is from Jaipur and he invited over to his home one night to meet his family. We didn’t get to meet his parents, who were out working on the family farm, but we did meet his stunningly beautiful sister, his shy aunt and his uncle, who is the family patriarch. Poor Uncle is not mobile – he had a serious accident on a motor bike some years ago and his leg was crushed by a truck. Ram told us he is in his late fifties, but he looked probably twenty years older than that. It seems to me that people age so early here, even putting aside tragic accidents.

    Ram’s house has several sparsely decorated rooms off an inner courtyard. We sit on plastic chairs around the TV – the rest of the furniture consists of uncomfortable-looking rope beds and a coffee table off to the side. A continuous loop of a temple music blares from another room. Ram says they play the temple music continuously – 24 hours a day. THAT would drive me insane. Just goes to show how you can learn to block out anything. Strangely, a piece of blue cloth is moving around on the coffee table. Ram notices my quizzical look, chuckles and tells us it is because of his pet rats.
    Dang.
    More rats.

    He picks up the cloth and shows us two white rats. DD asks what their names are, but Ram says they have no names. Strange – are we the only ones who name everything – including our cars? DD picks up Rat One and Rat Two and one of them promptly pees on her! We all burst out in laughter – poor thing is such is an excreta magnet! More blessings, I tell her! BTW, when the dhobi walla found out that she got pigeon splattered in the rat temple he did our laundry for free – that counts for a blessing, right? Hey, speaking of the rat temple, just think of the fun we could have had at the rat temple with these guys!

    As I dig out the antiseptic wet wipes, Ram’s sister brings us some masala chai, which she and Auntie have prepared for us in the little kitchen off the courtyard. Its really good – what do they put in this stuff anyway? Its so addictive. Looking for topics of conversation, DH mentions that we enjoyed meeting Ram’s lovely fiancée, Asha, the other day. Ram jumps up out of his seat, dashes behind uncle’s chair and starts gesturing wildly for us to be quiet. Uncle turns around.
    Ram smiles.
    “More chai anyone?”
    We search for other things to talk about – our first Bollywood movie, where we’ve been so far, and how much we are enjoying the chai. Uncle is not a great conversationalist, so its a bit awkward, but we really do appreciate their unexpected hospitality. I always find it interesting to visit people’s homes when we are on travel – it gives you an unfiltered picture of the local lifestyle.

    Back in the car later, we find out that Ram met Asha through the internet and Uncle still doesn’t know about her. Uncle is very traditional, so Ram isn’t sure how they are going to explain Asha to him. Most marriages are still arranged in India, and even in Ram and Asha’s case, Asha’s father traveled to Ram’s house and met with his father to make sure that Ram was suitable before Asha was allowed to date Ram. Ram and his father have kept this from Uncle, in spite of current marriage preparations. Poor uncle – I hope it doesn’t kill him when he finds out.

    I ask Ram if his sister is his only sibling. Turns out she is not.
    “I have two brothers also Mam. I had three brothers, but one is dead. He died when he was seventeen.”
    I express sadness for him and his family that they lost the boy as such a young age.
    “Actually Mam, someone killed him.”
    “Really?” I ask, “Was it someone he knew?”
    “Actually Mam, you know, we found him behind our house, very sick. His mouth was closed and his arm was twisted under his body.”
    “Oh dear,” I say, thinking someone has poisoned, stabbed or shot him.
    No.
    “It was Dracula. You have heard of Dracula?”
    Okay, this is weird.
    “Yes, I’ve heard of him.”
    “Do you believe in Dracula?”
    How do I handle this one?!!
    “Well, I need to read up more about him – I guess some people do believe in him.”
    “You know Mam, it is TRUE. I believe it!”
    “Hey, check out those hawks circling the car!”
    Ram turns the radio up and we drive on.

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    Wonderful! Hope it keeps snowing in DC so you'll write some more. We were lucky to escape alive from our ride up to the Amber Fort. The elephant man told us to lean back, we stupidly obeyed, and the bar against which we were leaning promptly fell off. It was probably Dracula who saved us...

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    This is just getting better and better. Wow! Fabulous stuff. Beautifully written. Perceptive, honest and acute. I hope you realize that these adventures are happening because of the kind of people you are - what you put out you get back in India - and it seems like you guys and that sub-continent are a perfect match. You've been blooded now. Do let me help you pick a few places for your next trip, eh? I have some things I KNOW you'd enjoy.

    BTW, my Bollywood film star was Aishwaria Rai.

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    Another fantastic instalment! Never ridden an elephant before so let's hope we survive it. And thanks for the toilet tip, I'm sure that will come in handy! I'm glad you wrote about Choki Dhani: I've been trying to find a description of it to decide whether to go or not, and yours is a great explanation as to what it is really like.

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    After a morning elephant ride to the Amber Fort a couple of weeks ago, the photos found us at 6PM as we exited the City Palace in Jaipur. Talk about working for a living.

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    It is good to know that the photographers are still working! That story prompted me to dig out my diary of our first trip to India, in 1992. At the time I recorded:

    “As we plodded up the hill in the early morning hanging on for grim death whilst our elephant stopped at frequent intervals to void its massive bowel, a photo wallah was standing there braving the splashes to take our photograph.

    The observatory was the first stop after lunch. Standing outside the gate was a sales wallah with our photograph; he wanted Rs50 for it. Madam looked smart sitting in the howdah in a relaxed lotus position. I looked awkward with my long legs dangling all over the place. We declined the offer.

    Our next stop was the palace part of which doubles as a museum. Our sales wallah intercepted us en-route and the price of our photo had dropped to Rs30. Still no sale.

    After that we went on to a jeweller again "Just to look." Too damned right it was just to look! But on our way to the car our sales wallah friend was back again. He had by now realized that he was selling a highly perishable commodity and the haggling started in earnest!”

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    Awww trav, I've nearly gone bush now so I probably won't be able to read your next instalments for a while. So just accept my enthusiastic praise in advance... it's all been a joy so far.

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    I was gone for a couple of days and had to search for my own report!

    Dogster: Thanks again for your kind words and support. It means the world to me. Thanks also for your kind offer: I would LOVE for your input on my next trip to the subcontinent. Your adventures sound right up my alley! I was thinking south and/or east next time, but I don't know when that will be. I may have to do it alone, as my DH just started a new job and he is only accumulating one day of leave per month (total crap!) and my DD will be finishing up university in June and will either be starting grad school (in which case I *might* be able to get her to go with me) or will also be starting a new job. None of my friends seem in the least interested -- some have even told me they think I am crazy to go to India. I don't mind going by myself, but I'm not sure what it will be like as a lone female. Will let you know when I'm ready to embark -- I'll definitely want your input.
    Aishwaria Rai! Kingfisher presents: Beauty and the Beast!!!

    Marija: You've been so wonderful to stick with me. Thank you! You have a great sense of humor too! I appreciate it. I can't say I am surprised that you almost fell off the elephant -- it felt pretty precarious to me. Yes, its all dracula's fault.

    Clark55: Thanks so much for reading my report. Let me know if I can help you with your trip plans in any way. I know you're in for an adventure!

    msmango: You only have 8 days, so Choki Dhani may be a good place for you. We really did have a good time, even though it was a bit touristy. How many days now till you go? You must be getting excited!

    patlanta and tangata: I was impressed with the guys who followed us on the motor bike, but your experiences were even more impressive! Those guys are amazing! Thanks for sharing your tales of the photo wallahs!

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    Jaipur to Agra: "O-Ee-Yah! Eoh-Ah!"

    Another day in the car and Ram has surprised us this morning with breakfast – fresh lassis in traditional clay cups and somosas. I comment that the lassi is the best I’ve ever had, and Ram proudly tells us that his family supplies milk to the lassi shop. They are absolutely yummy.

    Just outside of Jaipur on the road to Agra is Galta Kund, also known as the Monkey Temple. The temple complex is located in a rock gorge amidst springs and reservoirs. We are met by a v-neck-sweatered Colin Farrell look-alike – slicked back shoulder-length brown hair, furry eyebrows, intense brown eyes, scrubby beard – much like this: http://www.upi.com/Entertainment_News/2008/07/09/Colin_Farrell_hits_car_leaves_nice_note/UPI-24111215656636/ -- minus the teeth. He takes a white scarf from his shoulders and wraps it around his head.
    “Would you like a guide?”
    “Are you a guide?”
    “I am the Monkey Master. I will show you.” He grins.
    Just then a white delivery van pulls up to the front of the complex and dozens of monkeys come running – as do some cows. (Ever see a cow run? They can put on some speed!”)
    The Monkey Master explains that this truck comes every day – its filled with food for the monkeys, a devotional gift from a patron of the temple. The truck pulls up next to us and we are surrounded by rhesus macaques. The driver opens the back and pulls out a box of fruit – they look like apricots – and tosses it on the ground in front of the Monkey Master. The monkeys go wild and start tearing at the box.
    “Heh!” The Money Master shouts at them – and they back off. “Don’t be greedy!”
    He turns to us: “They listen to me,” he says. “I am the big boss.”
    He starts tossing apricots to the monkeys who run away one at a time as they get a piece of the fruit in their paws. A couple of the monkeys try to hoard more than one – stuffing an additional apricot into their cheeks – which the Monkey Master notices. He yells at them and they give him a guilty look and scamper off.
    After the box is empty, we head toward the turnstile at the entrance.
    The Monkey Master opens the main gate for the truck and it goes zooming past us toward the other end of the complex. He scurries after it on foot.

    The palatial temple buildings look like rundown manor homes – at one time they must have been exquisite – pinkish stone with colorfully painted frescoes and domed roofs. I can’t help but think of the plight of the city pavement dwellers, and here the monkeys have mansions.
    I don’t know how many monkeys live here, but there have got to be several hundred at least. We saunter past the huge temple edifices and come across a garden where a gang of monkeys munch on fresh greens – occasionally engaging in a tug of war. The garden is in full bloom – yellow, orange, purple and pink flowers abound. Just up a few steps we find a large pool of dirty water in front of another temple mansion. More monkeys sit in the windows and a few swing down from the roof to the surrounding terrace. Several groups of devotees are picnicking by the pool.

    Suddenly the Monkey Master reappears at my elbow.
    “You like?”
    “Yes, very interesting.”
    “Water comes from same places as Ganges. Very holy.”
    “Come!” He beckons me to follow him up a long staircase to the top of the temple complex. Periodically a skirmish breaks out between a couple of monkeys and the Monkey Master steps in to break up the fight and scold them. They do seem to obey him. A very old sadhu is camped out on the steps and reaches out to me as I walk past. I look around to make sure I’m not going to be descended upon and pull 50 Rs out of my pocket. He blesses me with an incantation I don’t understand, but I know it’s a blessing all the same.
    Midway up the staircase is a landing with a smaller pool. Pilgrims are bathing, shaving and brushing their teeth here in the filthy-looking water. Indians must have very strong constitutions . . .
    At the top of the steps is another pool, surrounded by more monkeys – some of them dive into the water for a swim. Overall, the monkeys look pretty mangy and have quite a few scars – the little ones look to be in better condition. It seems they love to groom each other as I see several laying on their backs while they let other moneys pick and scratch at them. The Monkey Master tells me the monkeys are very smart.
    Beckoning toward the temple at the top the Monkey Master says, “Eighteen Century!” He tells me that the original paintings on the temple were ruined by bad rains about fifteen years ago.

    There’s a beautiful view up here – you can see all the way to the city of Jaipur. Several groups of ladies in brightly colored saris join us at the top for the view. The Monkey Master reaches in his pocket and pulls out some treats to feed some of the baby monkeys who are following us. They look adorable, but I am wary, so I give my treats to DD, who is enjoying feeding the little creatures. They aren’t afraid to snatch the tidbits right out of her hand.
    The Monkey Master beams as he tells me that National Geographic has recently filmed a documentary here about his monkeys. I’m not sure if he is just telling me about it or whether he wants me to buy a copy. DH and DD, who are standing behind the Monkey Master, give a little smile and wave and head back down the long staircase, leaving me alone to fend off the sales job. Just then another quarrel breaks out amongst a group of the monkeys sitting on a wall by the pool.
    The Monkey Master looks up.
    “Ut oh!”
    “What?”
    “See monkey who just came? He is boss of another pack. It is trouble.”
    “Trouble?” The growling, hooting and hollering reaches fever pitch.
    “RUN!” the Money Master shouts into my face.
    I see saris flying in all directions.
    “RUN – it’s a war! Very dangerous! GO!”
    He runs toward the battling monkeys yelling at them to stop.
    I glance up and see monkeys pouring in from all sides, flying through the air, fur flying.
    And run I did -- as fast as I could -- down the steps, through the turnstile and into the car.

    I wish now I had been able to take some photographs of the commotion.
    BTW, here’s a link to the Monkey program: http://www.natgeotv.co.in/Programmes/Microsite/Main.aspx?Id=195

    We catch our breath and head back out on the road to Agra. It’s a pleasant drive past endless yellow fields of blooming mustard plants. A few hours later we pull into the parking lot below Fatehpur Sikri. Ram warns us about the touts, and he’s not overstating their aggressiveness. Tip: Ask your driver the going rate for the rickshaws that take you up to the site. I can’t remember what our driver told us, but I do remember the rickshaw drivers asked at least 2 or 3 times that amount. We stuck to the price he advised and one of the drivers finally agreed to it.

    The guides are aggressive here and we decide we don’t want any of them. At some point you get sick of the constant nagging and badgering and finally tell them all to go to hell. We were at that point and decided to rely on the guidebook this time. It was a relief to get to the other side of the ticket booth and away from the harassing mob. As we meander through the site, an old man sidles up to me.
    “I caretaker.”
    “Hello.” I smile and move off, trying to dump him. He doesn’t give up. He follows me.
    He mutters in my direction and tips his head toward the next building over.
    “Money building.” He points.
    “Treasury?” I guess.
    He puts his index fingers and thumbs in a square.
    “Good photo! Here!” He grabs my elbow and places me in position. It is a good angle, I must admit.
    The caretaker darts to another spot: “Good photo!”
    “Okay.” He plants my feet and points.
    And another spot: “Here!”
    DH shoots me a look and shakes his head.
    What the heck, I think – I’d rather tip this old chap than one of the guys outside. So, I spend the next hour or so with this “caretaker” showing me all the best photo locations. In between, he does his best to tell me what I’m looking at, which I supplement with the guidebook. Its undoubtedly not the best way to see Fatehpur Sikri, but I enjoyed it.

    I’ll also mention that I liked the Jama Masjid area better than the old royal city. While the old city probably would have been more interesting with a good guide, and it certainly had some intriguing architectural elements, it was just a bunch of old buildings in a ghost town. The Jama Masjid was vibrant and active with the vignettes of life: children playing tag, women tying strings around the marble screen in the tomb of Salim Chisti, men worshipping and reading their Korans, and families chatting it up in the quadrangle. BTW, if no one points it out, take notice of the beehives up in the top of the mosque archway. They’re huge!

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    I am really enjoying your travels....it amazes me after 30 years how the country has not changed much. When I stayed in Cochin (by myself), I went to an island off the coast where I had stayed at an old "government hotel", took a walk into the village where I was followed by tons of children, then made the mistake of giving one of them a rupee or so, next thing I know I was surrounded by old and young alike.

    Fortunately, the village teacher rescued me, he at least spoke English (which none of the villagers did). I was 19 at the time, didn't know any better, I'm also 5'9 and blond, so I was stared at and followed around a lot. I kept a journal of my travels and from time to time, read them again.

    Keep it coming and thank you again.

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    Thanks for another great episode. I found the monkey temple scary and got us out of there quickly! Your extraordinary report brings back so many memories. I'm eagerly looking forward to more.

    msmango--have a great time in India. Can't wait to read about your adventures. We got to Fatehpur Sikri early in the morning and had the place to ourselves.

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    I'm keen on seeing Jain Saint Bhahubali & climbing those steps (barefeet?) & doing the ancient temples around Hassan/Mysore.
    Fy to Mysore & take it from there?

    What's the best travel mode?

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    Agra to Orchha: Agravation.

    Nothing in Agra turned out the way I expected. We checked into our Agra Taj view room to no view at all. A deep fog had rolled in and not only could we not see the Taj, we could not see anything at all from our hotel window. Still, the next morning we woke up way before dawn and hustled over to the Taj Mahal, hoping to experience it at sunrise. There was no sunrise. In fact, it was almost as if there was no Taj. We stood in the Darwaza-i-rauza, the gateway to the Taj, to gaze on the pure white monument and saw nothing BUT pure white. It was a huge disappointment. I was hoping to feel that leap in my heart, like so many others have said they experienced upon first sight, but, alas, I didn’t. An optimist standing next to me said, “Don’t worry, it will burn off.” But, alas, it didn’t. Instead of “one tear-drop . . . upon the cheek of time,” it was more like “one tear-drop . . . upon the cheek of mine.” Crestfallen, we picked ourselves up from our dashed expectations and spent the next few hours caressing the marble, gazing at the delicate and exquisite stone inlay, and marveling at the soaring archways.

    BTW, another old “caretaker” offered to show me around the Taj. Ha! These old guys have figured out a way to lure in the gullible tourists and scoop the “guides” for a tip! If a “caretaker” offers to show you around, keep in mind that he’s just another tout with a clever hook.

    We did the usual sites in Agra – the Agra Fort, the “Baby Taj” – but otherwise spent little time wandering around the city. I don’t know if it was the fog or the pollution, but I found it hard to breathe. Plus, DD got sick in Agra. We made the mistake of letting the driver talk us into eating at a place that he advertised to us as having a “different,” “Mughal” cuisine. It was just a run-of-the-mill tourist-trap restaurant geared toward tour groups – which I truly loathe. I would rather eat at a hole-in-the-wall local place, or a restaurant recommended by one of my guidebooks than go to one of these places where the driver gets a free meal if he brings in his clients. When we realized this, we should have gotten up and left, but we were already seated and, frankly, tired and hungry. So, we let it slide. Bad move. This was very unlike our experience with the driver to this point – he had not offered to take us to his “cousins” shop, or to places which we didn’t ask to go. It was the one time he pulled this on us and we let him know how unhappy we were about it. I actually think he was talked into it by another driver, who we saw him run off with up to the driver area of the restaurant. To top it off, DD got sick from the coffee there, which was the only thing she had that we didn’t. Needless to say, she had a very rough night. I blame myself for not listening to my instincts.

    Next morning we decided to take the train to Jhansi instead of driving there, as we were advised that the road is very rough. Our driver drove ahead with our baggage and we caught the train from the Agra Cantonment Station. If you have a chance, do try to experience at least once a train in India – or at least visit a train station. The people-watching is fantastic – chai wallahs, porters with unbelievable loads on their heads, businessmen, women in colorful saris, rich, poor and people of every stripe and background. It is a vivid and lively dynamic. According to DD, the toilets, however, aren’t as interesting, as poor thing was still dealing with her Delhi belly. We wondered how she was going to manage the train, but she toughed it out and we made it to Jhansi, where our driver met us and drove us on to Orchha.

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    Orchha to Khajuraho: Sex, lies, videotape – and an accident.

    We immediately notice a difference in the little town of Orchha that we saw no where else - it was clean! The streets were swept and the front of every store and house looked tidy and orderly. It felt as if we had been air-dropped into a corner of Germany. We checked into our hotel, a spacious place with polished marble floors, a central courtyard garden and views of some of the cenotaphs, for which Orchha is known. Once we get to our room, DD collapses into bed, still trying to recover from her affliction. DH and I wander the grounds a bit, check our email and then unwind from the trip with drinks in the garden.

    We had planned on going out for dinner, but with DD still sick in bed, we opt for the hotel restaurant. After ordering we are chatting away when an older gentleman, a blue-turbaned Sikh, strides over to our table.
    “I can hear from your accent that you are from the United States.”
    “Yes?” we are a bit mystified. Who is this and what does he want?
    Our apprehensions are immediately alleviated.
    “My wife and I are from San Francisco. Would you mind if we joined you?”
    “Please do!” we enthusiastically respond.
    Maybe this happens more when you are traveling alone, but we’ve rarely come across such protocol from travelers who are from the States, ourselves not excepted. Too often, we stick to our own little group, fiercely guarding our private little adventure from being polluted by fellow tourists. We delude ourselves into believing that we alone are brave enough to experience this exotic and faraway place – its nothing more than traveler’s pride – and I am as guilty as anyone. We find it refreshing to break through the pretense and enjoy the company of our fellow expats.
    The Singhs are a lovely couple who emigrated to the United States about thirty years ago who travel back to India every year to visit family. They spend some of each trip back exploring the country of their birth. This year, its Gwalior, Orchha and Khajuraho. We catch up on news from home, traveling to and in India post 26/11, terrorism in general, and the U.S. election results.

    After dinner we order room service for DD. We go wake her up and are glad to find her feeling well enough to eat again. You know how it is, after not eating for a day she savors her spaghetti noodles and tea. We had originally planned on spending two nights in Orchha, but decided that we could see what we wanted to in a day and spend an additional night at the Taj in Khajuraho.

    The next morning we check out of the hotel to find out we have to pay cash for our room – supposedly their credit card machine is not working and has not been working for several days. This sends me ballistic. I ask why they didn’t tell me this when I checked in?!! Their response was a shrug. I suspect they didn’t tell us this on check-in, because we probably would have opted to go elsewhere -- if it was even true. They probably didn’t want to pay the merchant fees. The result is that we are wiped out of cash down to our last Rupee. After we leave the hotel, DH reminds me that he has a bad 1000 Rupee note that was passed off to us at the Lallgarh Hotel. FYI, check the security strip on your bills – if it is broken, it won’t be accepted anywhere. We found this out too late – I wish I had remembered that we had the bill, because I would have tried to use it at the Amar Mahal – it would have been just desserts for their little maneuver.

    Fortunately, there is an ATM in Orchha and we are once again flush with Rupees. We cross the bridge over to the fort and spend a good bit of time there. The palaces are not in the best condition, but there are few visitors so we savor the solitude as we roam through the rooms.

    We hiked up to the Laxmi Narayan temple, which is an interesting mix of both temple and fort architecture. The walls and ceiling are adorned with extraordinary murals of religious themes and war scenes. While this temple is dedicated to Laxmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, many of the sacrifices made here are in the Tantric-cult style. Tantrics devote themselves to gaining the maximum pleasure out of worldly pleasures, especially sex, but also yoga and altered states of consciousness, the belief being that the energy attained at the peak of pleasure (trying not to get too x-rated here!) will propel the believer to enlightenment – reaching ecstasy allows them to attain the divine.

    We are alone here except for a young couple sitting lotus-style on a blanket and pillows that they’ve spread out next to the steps at the front of the temple. There is a sweet, pungent scent in the air. In front of them are a cooker and a pestle and various piles of leaves, nuts and spices. I walk over to find them grinding up the leaves with opium into pea-sized balls, which they are apparently in the process of smoking (I don’t see a pipe). They look very relaxed and are grinning wide as I greet them. Conversation turns out to be pointless – what they mumble, I can’t understand. I have no idea where they’re from . . . are they here because of the tantric reputation of this temple? I don’t find out, but as I walk away they giggle and snuggle closer.

    We stroll back down into the town and do some low-pressure shopping. Orchha is a wonderful little village to wander around and the people there are very friendly. Its a photographer’s dream – not insanely crowded like most cities and towns in India, and there are lots of interesting people around – fruit and flower sellers, street vendors, kids, families going to temple and even a picturesque sadhu band. The cenotaphs and temples in Orchha provide plenty of opportunities for exploration. Orchha is worth more time than we spend here – and I wish we had more time, because it would be a good place to kick back and slow down for another day or so.

    Back on the road, we leave Orchha and head for Khajuraho. After about a half hour of driving we come up to a traffic jam. Our driver weaves his way up close to the front of the problem. Turns out, there has been an accident on a small bridge over a dried up creek. A goods carrier truck is turned on its side, blocking passage, and another truck is hanging over the side of the bridge, where it has knocked out the concrete siding. It looks like it’s going to be a long wait, so we ask the driver if there’s another route, but no, he says this is the only one. He gets out and wanders off, seeking whatever information he can.

    After about ten minutes, some of the cars are attempting to forge a crossing down the steep incline next to the bridge. We get out to watch for a bit, as it becomes pretty amusing to see the cars and rickshaws speed down the hill fast enough to propel themselves up the other side. Most of them fail, and it starts looking like a demolition derby. After that gets old, we go back to the car -- nothing for us to do but kick back and relax. We get out our books to read. In the meantime, we’ve attracted a crowd – mostly young men – who are pressing their faces up to the windows of the car to stare at us. At first I smile at them, but I get flat stares back. We decide to ignore it, but after about twenty minutes or so it starts grating on our nerves and I motion for them to scram. That doesn’t work, so I start shouting, “Go away!” Again, no effect. DD hangs her jacket over her window, but it does nothing to dissuade them – they just move to the other side of the car and start peering in through the windshield. I have no idea what makes us so intriguing – we’re doing nothing! Ok, yeah, we are light-skinned, but even that can’t be so interesting after a while! Thank goodness the driver comes back and tells the kids to scram.

    Eventually, a giant crane works its way through the mass of accumulated traffic to the bridge and frees the trucks. We’re finally back on our way to Khajuraho.

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    You didn't see the Taj? I am so so sorry for you, when I first saw it in 1991 I just sat there and thought "If I never do anything else I will be happy just to sit here and look at this."

    To come so far and not to see it must mean that you are fated to go back to see it.

    Loving your report!

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    Thanks Wayne! I very much appreciate your encouragement. I'm glad you found my report.

    Yes, Tangata, it really was a disappointment to not be able to gaze on the Taj -- especially after seeing so many famous photos of it, but we appreciated being there anyway. Maybe one day we will return.

    msmango: Your trip is getting so close now!!! I wish it was me. I can't wait to read your trip report when you get back.

    Thanks also to you owlwoman and Marija, especially for keeping me motivated. Ya'll are wonderful.

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    Khajuraho: Temple tales and a Christmas story.

    The exotic temples at Khajuraho are quite impressive – well worth the time and effort to get here. We start at the western group – the largest and most spectacular of the three temple groups. We hired a guide for a short tour only, as I find that once I get to a certain saturation point, having a guide along gets irritating and I just want to meander on my own. DH also hired the audio-guide, which he says is skippable.

    Sanjay, our tour guide, gives us the background of the Chandela dynasty, an explanation of the architectural aspects, and he also points out some of the more interesting carvings and their, ahem, details. In reality, the temples are a great mystery and the meaning behind the erotic sculptures (which account for only about 10% of the temple carvings) is unclear. In spite of that, as we wander around the complex and eavesdrop on other guides, we hear all sorts of explanations, including iterations of the following:

    --The Chandelas professed a tantric philosophy and that the carvings portray the prevailing sexual practices of the times.
    -- The sculptures were a how-to manual for young men – essentially sex education before getting married.
    -- The carvings instructed devotees to leave their sexual proclivities outside the temples – indicating that the inner temples were to be used for spiritual purposes only, and that the physical self was to be left outside.
    -- The sculptures were an expression of the belief that sex, as well as all other aspects of life, comes from the gods.
    -- They show that fertility is secondary to gratification.
    -- The erotica was there to appease and distract bad spirits – the spirits would focus on the sexual carvings and forget about their mission to disrupt the lives of the worshippers.
    -- The king ordered the inclusion of the erotic sculptures to ensure he would be portrayed as a virile ruler.
    -- And, most amusingly, that the sculptures were there to show people what they shouldn’t do.

    We get a big kick out of the disparity of explanations. DD suggests a new reality show – the premise would be to go to famous tourist sites, hire different guides and record their spiels. Elimination would based on how much they bs. They could get points for creativity, imagination and accuracy.
    It might be kind of fun!

    Sanjay complains that all the tourists want to do is gawk at the sexual images, but it seems to us that’s what the guides hone in on and explicitly (ha!) point out. To stay in business, ya gotta give the people what they want, right?

    At the temples we run into the San Francisco Sikh and his wife once again, and he gives us probably as good an explanation as we’ve heard about the temples. Mr. Singh explains: Most of the temples are dedicated to Shiva. Shiva is the creator – and Shiva is the destroyer – in essence, Shiva is the circle of life. And, the most important act at the center of the circle of life is sex. Sex results in procreation for the sustaining of life – and also in the destruction of innocent life. Once we engage in sex, we share our flesh, our inner sanctum, and we lose our individuality – our self—which leads ultimately to our destruction. He believes that the sexual images are there both to honor Shiva and to encourage sex . . . after all, sex is necessary to the survival of the culture. Interesting!

    We come across a tour group of American senior citizens. As we pass them, we hear one old guy loudly announce to the group that he needs to get back to the hotel right away. Ugh! Then their tour leader jokes that she will be happy to arrange partners for anyone who needs them. Double ugh! Then an old biddy cantankerously states that won’t work because her dead husband might be watching her from heaven, and he would never approve. I’m no prude, but I have no words for that group dynamic, except to say, old people should not talk and joke about sex publicly – it creates images I don’t want to think about!

    Oh, and for anyone planning on visiting, a warning: beware of the monkeys at this group of temples. They are aggressive. We were minding our own business when a troop of monkeys came near us, and one of the mama monkeys, baby following her, walked right over to DD, hip checked her, and purposely stomped on her foot! DD was fine, and fairly amused, but I definitely wouldn’t tangle with those guys! It could get ugly.

    We wind up our tour of the western temples and brave the touts to go get lunch. We ate at Mediteranneo – which advertises on the side of its building that its chef is from Rome. Actually, the food was pretty good – we ordered pizza and pasta – just the ticket for travelers who are a bit tired of the local fare.

    After lunch we go to the Eastern group of temples. These temples are more a mix of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist traditions. In addition to the erotic sculptures, at these temples there is a fair concentration of the naked form of man – posters of famous skyclad (naked) Jain monks and many statues of naked gods. As we are standing in front of one statue, an Indian family with a couple of little kids walks over. A little boy, who is carrying a ball, stands in front of the statue in wonder – looking at his face, I could see the light bulb go off in his head – he suddenly drops his ball and pulls out his little sausage with pride. I don’t understand what he says, but I’m sure it meant, “Hey! I’ve got one of those, too!” Everyone breaks up laughing. Happily, the parents didn’t scold the boy, but also enjoyed the moment as well. The boy was well pleased with himself and dad gently encouraged him put it away.
    Innocence is a precious thing to behold.

    We are templed out, so we return to our expansive suite at the Taj and take tea on our private terrace overlooking the pool. Unfortunately, it’s too cold to swim, but it’s great just to be poolside in the middle of winter.
    About an hour later, our telephone rings. It’s the front desk.
    “Please come to the lobby in a half an hour.”
    “Why?”
    “We have a Christmas presentation for you.”
    DD wants to skip it – “If I have to sing or dance, it’s not happening!” she proclaims.
    But, we manage to convince her to come with us and a half-hour later we are sitting in the lobby.
    Alone.
    In the middle of the lobby is the most pitiful little Christmas tree you have ever seen – about 5 scrawny branches decorated with garlands and lights, surrounded by sacks of seeds and flour. (DD: Is THAT what I would get for Christmas in India?!!)
    No one else is here. Is this it? Did we misunderstand? Should we leave?
    A hotel employee comes over and tells us the presentation will begin in five minutes.
    Hmm. What are we in for?

    As promised, a few minutes later, a rag-tag band of about twenty teenagers, chaperoned by a couple of nuns, a priest and a most disturbing costumed version of Santa Claus that you can imagine (really – his mask was horror-movie worthy!”) file into the lobby of the hotel. Other than the staff, which has wheeled in a beverage and sweet cart, we are the entirety of the audience.
    A sweet-looking girl lovingly places a cradle with the Baby Jesus under the Christmas tree.
    She rejoins the group and the Santa leads them in Hindu-language Christmas carols for us. We recognize some of the tunes and hum along. What a lovely gift! They must have come to the hotel assuming that there would be Christians staying here, and apparently, we are it.
    They break into “We wish you a Merry Christmas” in English.
    It’s really quite touching.
    The hotel staff, obviously delighting in the spirit of the evening, serves us all goodies.
    Afterward, each of the carolers comes over to us in turn, shakes our hands and says, “Merry Christmas, and God bless you!”
    Truly, we ARE blessed.
    It’s a Merry Christmas in India.

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    Thank you, travelaw, for your amazing report. I am even reliving parts that I didn't visit at all---which is a pretty neat trick and due to your wonderful eye for detail and reporting. Yay for Christmas in India!

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    How unfortunate that you didn't get to see the Taj Mahal. Is there a reason you didn't stay another day? We did the trip in the opposite direction from you: Varanasi-Khajuraho-Bandavgarh-Orchha-Janhsi-Agra. The train station in Janhsi was indeed unbelievable. I was so sorry that the porter had the bag with my camera (and computer) on his head, together with our other two bags, and I couldn't get a photo. I was terrified that the cameras and computers would fall off but those guys are real pros.

    Thanks so much for writing. I eagerly await the next episode.

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    Wonderful report, and a great writing style, travelaw.

    I have been reading and enjoying and following your trip report. Too bad you did not get to enjoy the Taj in it's full glory because of the fog. This means you are going to have to go back to India for another trip!

    Great planning and right length of time to do justice to a country like India.

    Eagerly awaiting the next part of your report.

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    Oh what a lovely Christmas present! And thanks again for the wonderful descriptions of all those places (which I can't fit in on this trip but maybe on another )Your writing brings them all to life for me.

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    Amy: So glad you are enjoying my report. I hope someday you get back to India and visit some of the other parts. Yes, Christmas turned out to be so sweet!

    Marija: We stayed in Agra for three nights -- but the fog stayed heavy that entire time. We were hoping that it would let up for at least a little bit, and thought about trying to go back to the Taj, but to go back and pay the entry fee for three of us for another visit seemed expensive and possibly pointless because there was no change in the weather. Those porters were something, weren't they?! I would have been nervous too, waching my camera and computers balanced on top of someone's head!

    magical: thanks so much for your kind words. I would like to go back to India soon -- and I might even venture back to Agra one day. It was a stretch for me to get a big block of time off to go -- its very difficult to do, but you have to take what you can get. I think I would enjoy India no matter how long I was there.

    msmango: Only 3 days!!! This will all be real life to you very soon. Thanks for continuing to follow my saga!

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    Varanasi: Easy as Pi and a biryani bonus!

    We arrived in Varanasi and are met at the airport by a driver and guide sent by the hotel. Varanasi strikes us as crowded, dirty, and very busy. After we drive into the city, because the hotel is down on the river, we need to walk the last bit through a pedestrian area past smoke-spewing electricity generators and down an alleyway to the ghats. Palace on the River looks to be one of the few half-way decent hotels on the river. We have the front two rooms on the second floor (third floor was booked dogster – we tried!), which look out on the water and ghats through a tree that is directly in front of our windows. From our bed, we watch the monkeys swing and climb on the branches, as well as a parrot or two. DH suggests that it would be cool to have a zoo/hotel – rooms would be located right in the animal dens with huge windows. I’m not so sure about that idea, though it is pretty cool to watch the animals up close. We’re pretty tired, so we decide to just head up to the rooftop restaurant and hang out there for the evening. The Dolphin restaurant is pretty good -- and pretty inexpensive. We enjoy listening to the sounds of the river – the aarti ceremony (lots of chanting and bells), the cows mooing, monkeys screeching, dogs barking and kids shouting to each other as they fly their kites. It’s a magnificent sight to see the hundreds of kites being flown all over the city at sunset.

    The next morning we decide to walk along the ghats to the South. There is plenty of action to behold – sadhus wandering or sleeping near the water, touts hawking postcards, and kids selling diyas. Boatmen constantly nag to be hired – which we’ll do later – right now we just want to walk and take in the panorama. We walk past priests sitting under bamboo umbrellas, sheets and saris drying on the pavement, the dhobi wallahs smacking wet clothes on concrete slabs, and cow patties drying in the sun. We take it all in. Varanasi is colorful, bizarre, fantastic, peculiar, wacky, foreign and familiar all at once. It’s remarkable.

    We wander up to the street and eat lunch at Bread of Life. It was okay, nothing spectacular, but we did like the Western music selections they were playing. Unlike most other countries we’ve visited, we haven’t heard any rock n’ roll while we’ve been in India. After lunch, we grab a rickshaw and head back to the hotel, because we have hired a guide for the afternoon.
    We arrive back at the hotel just at the arranged time to meet a thick, lumbering fellow who introduces himself as “Pi.”
    “Easy as Pi!” He says. “You won’t forget my name!”
    We tell him we want a tour of the temples in the old city and off we go.

    First stop is a tiny Shiva temple right near the hotel. Pi explains to us the basics of the now familiar story of Shiva and in fragmented, somewhat incomprehensible pieces, tells a legend about the god. We have some trouble understanding him, but we cut him some slack and politely attempt to follow his narrative. We wander down some alleyways, where Pi points out all the Shiva lingams along the way (and there are a lot of them!). He shows us that every house has a small icon of Ganesh on the door lintel, and informs us that the doorways aren’t low because Indians are small, but because it forces them to bow to Ganesh every time they enter the house.

    Pi points out another twenty or so Shiva lingams (phallus worship is rampant here) and every Ganesha over every doorway on our route, and acts as if we should get excited at the sight of each one. We’re starting to get a bit irritated and wonder if we are going to see anything else. We do – Pi shows us some old buildings – we ask him how old they are, but he shrugs and says, “don’t know. They are old.” Yeah, we figured that out Pi! But he does tell us that he disapproves of the old buildings being painted – he declares, “paint is sh**!” We whisper to one another, “What did he say?” “Did I hear him correctly?”

    We move on. More Shiva lingams, more Ganeshas on door lintels.
    “How about showing us some temples Pi?” I ask.
    “Okay,” says he.
    More unidentifiable old buildings: “Paint is sh**! Should be natural!”
    I guess we did hear him correctly. Does he think he is being cool using curse language with us? I’ve never, from any of probably a hundred guides over years of travel, heard such language on a tour. Maybe a slip once or twice, but never during an explanation. I am not Miss Prim and Proper, but I find it very inappropriate to use such language, especially when you are conducting a tour with a family. (Not that DD doesn’t hear enough of it at university!)
    An hour and a half later and we have yet to cross the threshold of a temple.
    “How about some temples Pi?” I ask again with increased firmness.
    Pi raises his ample arm and points. “Look here – that side old building, this side new building. Paint, sh**!”
    Now we are discussing between ourselves firing Pi. I decide we should hang in there and continue to give him a chance.
    He takes us into a courtyard to show us yet another Shiva lingam.
    “Shiva is wind, Krishna is earth and you know what is Ganesha?”
    “No. What?”
    “Cow sh**! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! All the Spanish, Germans, Italians, French, all understand and they step in cow sh** for good luck. You know, some people, they take cow sh** and take it to their houses and spread it all over the floor for good luck . . . .”
    “Hey Pi, when are you going to show us something or give us some information that is worthy of a guide? If you don’t the tour is over.”
    “Okay, I will show you temple. First an old one, then the Golden Temple.”
    Pi takes us to what appears to be a very old temple – very intricate sculptures are on the stepped pyramid, each one different.
    “How old is this temple Pi?”
    “I don’t know, but very old.”
    THIS is getting old.
    “Where is the Golden Temple Pi?”
    “Yes, I show you next.”
    Next was actually a temple to Krishna: “Paint. Sh**. I don’t like paint.”
    No sh** Sherlock! We’ve heard you say this now at least a dozen times.
    “Golden temple or we are done Pi.”
    “Yes, yes, right now, Golden Temple.”
    So, we head up an alleyway toward what we hope will be the Golden Temple. Pi suddenly stops and strikes up a conversation with a shopkeeper – it was the dustiest, dirtiest little shop on the alley. A boy in the shop goes digging through a drawer of an antique chest and pulls something out. He hands it to Pi, who hands the shopkeeper some Rupees.
    Pi smiles widely: “Each time I work I smoke one cigarette.” He lights up and grins again.
    Now we are discussing out loud that we are just being fools and try to figure out how to handle this. DD suggests that running away is an option. We seriously consider it, but we really don’t feel like getting into a tussle over this at the hotel where he will surely show up later for payment.
    Finally, we turn a corner and there is the entrance to the Golden Temple.
    “Just outside or do you want to go in?” Pi asks.
    At this point, just outside is okay with us, until we realize that “just outside” is just a view of the metal detectors – you can’t really see anything from “outside.” Okay, so inside –
    “You need to leave all your belongings with this guy,” Pi says, nodding his head toward a smelly, toothless, slight little man dressed in dirty clothing.
    “He’s my friend.”
    Hell no, I think – and from the look on his face, I can see that DH is thinking the same thing. I have no idea who this “friend” is and I can imagine our cameras and phones being enjoyed by others in the future. We decide that one will stay behind with our stuff and take turns.
    I go through the metal detector, down a colorful alley where shopkeepers are selling all manner of religious offerings and basically stand on the step of a shop outside the temple area – if you stretch up and turn slightly, you can see the golden spire. That’s about it.
    We are finally done. We walk back to the hotel and reluctantly pay Pi something – the minimum – at this point we are willing to pay just to never see him again. Sigh.
    This was a true and accurate account of out time with Pi. Easy as Pi. He’s right, we won’t forget his name!

    It’s hard to describe the atmosphere in Varanasi -- the commingling smells of burning flesh, diesel, spices and dung – and the constant din of prayers, sales pitches, motorbikes, and shouting -- life either in the city or on the ghats is never boring. The next few days consist of boat trips on the Ganges at various times o the day, walking up and down the ghats, watching the cremation rituals, shopping for saris, day tripping to Sarnath, taking rickshaw rides around the city and witnessing the aarti ceremony at night. We eat almost all our meals at the hotel restaurant, which has become almost as comfortable as home. One day we decide to try lunch out a restaurant recommended in a travel article about Varanasi by a famous New York newspaper – and also reviewed in one of our guidebooks (not Fodor’s!) called Keshari. As promised, the place is full of locals, and there is a stern looking man counting Rupees at an elevated desk at the front. After a delicious dosa for an appetizer, we order up a bunch of dishes. The waiter brings our spread and we dish out our food. I am about to dig in to my overflowing plate when I notice out of the corner of my eye that something is moving on top of the biryani dish.
    “Stop!” I yell. And everyone’s forks come to a halt. They look up.
    “Don’t eat anything. I just saw something moving in the rice.”
    Sure enough, on closer inspection, the rice is indeed moving.
    Maggots!
    (An update to my squeamishness list: it’s now cockroaches, rats, and . . . maggots!)
    We call the waiter over – he looks at the dish and with absolutely no concern and no apology whips it away.
    I can’t eat at all now.
    DD, now inspecting all the food, finds a hair in the kofta.
    “They don’t have a clean kitchen,” she says. “Let’s go.”
    The waiter arrives with anther bowl of biryani.
    “No, thanks,” I say.
    “Why? This is new bowl – fresh!”
    Maybe (hopefully) they just had a bad day. We decide to pass. We pay our bill and leave. For now, we’re sticking to the Dolphin at the Palace on the River. Hopefully my appetite will return by dinner.

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    rhkkmk: it wasn't all bad luck -- I probably should have put in some of the good experiences as well. Pi was a recommendation of the hotel -- which I hesitate to tell everyone, because other than that, we had a very good stay there and excellent and friendly service. I have no idea where they got him. I can't imagine they knew what this guy was like, because if they did, I don't think they would have suggested him. I'm wondering now why we let the situation go on as long as we did. That was our own stupidity -- and we should have told the hotel that he was bad -- I don't know why we didn't. As a general rule, I can only go so far with guides -- this was probably one of those times where we just should have wandered on our own with a good map and guidebook. Thanks so much for continung to read along!

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    I so enjoy reading about your trip. Thanks! Our guide in Varanasi was the exact opposite of Pi but equally annoying. He jabbered non-stop for two days, telling us so much more than we wanted to know or could possibly absorb. We couldn't figure out how to tactfully ask him to SHUT UP and just let us look and experience.

    I didn't realize that you stayed in Agra for three days and had lousy weather. What a disappointment. Can't wait to read about Kathmandu. We wanted to include it but went for Ajanta and Ellora instead.

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    fyi...our guide in agra told us the nite before, "lets not go to the taj till mid-morning because there will be lots of ground fog early....sure enough he was right and when we got there about 10ish it was rising and behold a white building...

    now you have a reason to return...

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    Thanks for the information on Varanasi, we shall keep an eye open for π and run for cover.

    Our cruise itinerary includes “Explore on foot the ghats, palaces, temples and museums of this one of the oldest cities in the world. Varanasi contemporary with 7th century BC Babylon and Nineveh, is the cultural heart of Hindu India at its richest and most beautiful. Evening boat trip to observe the spectacular ritual fire dances to Lord Shiva held on the ghats.”

    That is our final day on the cruise; we then have the best part of a day on our own before our flight to Kathmandu.

    Do you have suggestions for what we could do, or should we just have a quiet day to recover from 15 days spent with Dogster?

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    Your guide was smart rhkkmk. We didn't have a guide in Agra -- and maybe we should have. Even so, the fog didn't let up while we were there -- it was much more than ground fog -- in fact, flights were being cancelled all over the area for days -- including up in Delhi. We did try to take some photos like the famous Diana shot as we left the grounds, which reminded me of those old postcards you used to get where you could see something at one angle and if you tilted the card, it would disappear. Same thing happened in my camera's LCD screen -- now you see it, now you don't! Interestingly, when I uploaded my photos of the Taj to my computer, I was able to use the sharpen and contrast features to get a better image than we actually saw in person. That made me feel a lot better -- I hadn't used those features much before, but I was very impressed with what you can do with them. Its not really what we saw -- but at least it proves we were actually there!

    Tangata: I would just suggest wandering around on the ghats. The highlight of Varansi is just being there and seeing the life all around you. That's the part I found most fascinating. Please say hello to dogster for me. He was very helpful when I was getting this trip together. Your river cruise should be a lot of fun!

    Marija, we almost did Ajanta and Ellora instead of Kathmandu, too, but we knew that we would someday go back to India, so we decided that we could go to those places on our next trip. Still, it was a hard choice. I really liked Kathmandu -- more than I expected to -- and I'm not really sure now what I expected!) I do wish we had more time there than we did. I didn't think I would want to go back there, but now its back on our list for another visit.

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    Kathmandu Kool

    Our flight to Kathmandu is smooth – and pretty spacious. I was expecting the worst from Indian Airlines, and it really wasn’t bad at all. There are great views of the Himalayas and I snap a few photos out of the plane window. The Kathmandu Valley lies below and is completely different from what we’ve seen in India. This looks like its going to be interesting!

    And it is.

    After checking into the Courtyard Hotel, where we are treated to a lovely welcome in the hotel library/office, we head out for a walk through the Thamel area and over to Durbar Square. Thamel is a merchandized step back into the sixties. Loved this shirt I spotted on one young guy: “Rich parents cramping your style? Wear a Che Guevara T-shirt!” Some of the folks here look like they came here 45 years ago and stayed. Some of them smell like they’re still wearing the same clothes, too. I’m sorry if I insult anyone, but in my opinion, gray dreadlocks on an old lady look pretty ridiculous, but, hey, do your own thing, baby! Groovy!

    We ramble in and around Durbar Square for a few hours. It’s great for people watching and I really like watching the interaction between the vegetable/fruit sellers and the locals on their way home from work. There are tons of teens and young folks hanging about – I guess they’re the Nepalese version of mall rats. We visit the various pagoda temples and courtyards, and of course, the Kumari Chowk, but no sight of the living goddess; she remains secreted away. Apparently, a new one was chosen recently -- I wonder what happens to the old one after her reign is over. I am approached by a sadhu near the Kasthamandap. He wants his photo taken, so I am about to oblige when a guy comes over to me and says, “Don’t do it – he’s a fake!”
    “Really?”
    “Yeah – he just dresses up so he can fool people out of their money.” Interesting this guy sees it as his responsibility to police the square to protect the tourists.
    The sadhu does look oddly clean and put together, so maybe the guy is right, but I take his photo anyway. I give the sadhu a coin – not too much. The self-appointed cop shakes his head and strides away.

    After exploring Durbar Square we go to Thamel House for a traditional Nepalese dinner. It was recommended to us by Pujan, the owner of our hotel, who tells us to ask for the Pujan special – Pujan’s uncle owns the place. (Hey, I guess you can’t blame the guy for plugging his family’s business!) We are well-taken care of at the restaurant. The traditionally-dressed waiters bring us course after course of food – roasted soy beans with ginger, dehydrated rice, delicious chicken kabobs and on and on. Then there’s the rakshi. Oh yes, the rakshi. It’s poured from an ornamental spouted metal decanter from a height of 3-4 feet into a shallow clay cup. It’s quite the spectacle. The rakshi tastes a bit like turpentine – it is powerful stuff and burns all the way down. Our cups never remain empty throughout the meal. After the copious quantities of food and rakshi, and even a little gift, we stumble back to the hotel. We’re going to sleep well tonight!

    The next morning we’re off to Bhaktapur. The drive out there is great – past rice paper “factories,” terraced fields and brick-making yards. Unfortunately, there are also plenty of smokestacks, emitting huge plumes of black smoke. No wonder there’s so much pollution in the valley. We first drive up to the village of Changu (thank you Kathie for the recommendation!) It’s a pleasant little community. The Changu Narayan temple complex is very peaceful and there is a lot to look at – it all looks incredibly old (and is!). As we are walking through the village we see an old woman being harassed into smiling for a group of Japanese photographers. The group is loud, faking laughter, trying their hardest to get a grin out of the poor woman.

    We head over to Bhaktapur, just a short drive away. The touts are relentless here. I find myself having to physically turn my back on them, just to carry on a conversation with DH and DD. While Bhaktapur is an active town, it’s also an open-air museum. Once the touts finally understand that we mean no when we say no, we love just roaming around here for a few hours. The buildings and temples are outstanding, but (unsurprisingly) I find the activity at pottery square and the local people more intriguing. We ate at Café Nyatapola, a busy restaurant in an old pagoda temple with a great view of Tamadhi Square and the Nyatapola Temple. Food was okay, a bit expensive for what we got. I’m sure the location adds to the price. It’s definitely geared toward tourists -- we don’t see many locals here. After some more wandering and a little shopping, we go to Kathmandu for the evening. After some rest and relaxation, we wandered back into Thamel for dinner, drinks and music at the New Orleans café. Music was good, drinks were strong, but food was eh. Still, it was a fun evening.

    The next day, after a leisurely breakfast, we drive to Patan to experience our 3rd Durbar Square. First up is the Golden Temple, which I like very much – it’s magnificent and quite picturesque. I especially enjoy seeing the proud look of the young boy serving as the main priest of the temple for his thirty days (before passing the responsibility on to another boy). Patan’s Durbar Square is somewhat similar to those of Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, but because the buildings are more closely situated, it seems to have more of a visual impact. There are lots of school kids in uniforms here, smiling and laughing and meeting up with their groups of friends. After trudging around the square and in and out of the various temples and chowks, we just sit in front of the royal palace with a group of older men, chew the fat and check out the crowd for awhile.

    We spend the balance of the afternoon visiting the Buddhist temples of Swayambhunath and Boudhanath. Swayambhunath is also called the monkey temple, and we do see some monkeys around (for which I have a new found fear), but there are more dogs here than monkeys. In an interesting fusion of Hinduism and Buddhism, most of the temple dogs have red tikkas on their heads – these are blessed little doggies! The hike up the steps here is breathtaking, but so is the view from the top. The prayer flags fluttering in the breeze, the brightly painted stupa, and the red-robed monks darting around make this a very colorful place.

    Boudhanath, which has a similar stupa with the same dazzling eyes and the question mark nose, turns out to be my favorite venue in Kathmandu. Around the shrine are hundreds of prayer wheels. At the back side of the stupa is a shrine to Ajima, a fierce, mean goddess revered by both Hindus and Buddhists. Near the Ajima shrine, guarded by a charming, eccentric-looking monk, are two HUGE prayer wheels – we go in and give them a big push. The most interesting part of Boudhanath though is the people. If you like taking photos of people as I do, this is a great place to do it. The visiting pilgrims who come to whirl the prayer wheels are dressed in bright native garments worthy of a National Geographic spread. Those of you heading off to Kathmandu should make sure you get over here at least once. It’s a wonderful place to take in the Nepalese/Tibetan ambiance.

    Our last morning in Kathmandu we stop at Pashupatinath on the way to the airport. The cremation ghats are burning strong, and the smoky haze wafting over the bridge and pagodas on the Bagmati River creates an eerie atmosphere. Just down from the cremation pyres, women are washing their clothes in the river. On the other side of the bridge, Hindu pilgrims are making puja on the water. Lots of sadhus are wandering around looking for us to take their photos for a few Rupees, but I’ve pretty much had my fill of sadhus now (including a fake one!). I was astonished to learn that we are forbidden from entering the temple, as we are not Hindus (the same rule applied at the temple in Bhaktapur). This is surprising to me after visiting India, where we were free to go into any of the Hindu temples. We didn’t stay long at Pashupatinath – after all we were in a bit of a hurry to get to the airport. Turns out, we need not have hurried. Our flight was delayed for five hours and we got stuck sitting in the awful waiting hall in the Kathmandu airport.

    I really liked Kathmandu and the surrounding Valley. My only regret is that we did not have enough time there. Next time I hope to get out to a village or two in the countryside and maybe do some easy trekking. No Mt. Everest for me – it was enough just to see it out the window of the plane!

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    What a wonderful report. We are heading to pretty much all the same places next Jan. 2010 and yours is the best and easiest read I have come across on any forum. Great work and you have given us lots of valuable information. Thank you for taking the time to do this.

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    Trav this is great. Thank you & very timely for me as we are just back from Tanzania & thinking our next trip will be a return trip to India. We want to focus on Rajastan with a side trip to Varanasi (just din't get enough time there last time) A few questions if you don't mind.
    How long were you actually in India? Sounds like the car & driver will be a good way to go for us. Don't want everything organized but since we don't have the luxury of loads & loads of time a car would help. We are thinking of Jan or Feb 2010.
    Thanks for getting me all wound up & wanting to go!

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    Thanks for keeping this alive guys. I almost decided not to post my final segment, figuring everyone had gotten tired of me. We were there for about 5 weeks jules. Folks on this board have different opinions on the car and driver option vs. trains or flying. We used all three, depending on our needs, but really liked using the car in Rajasthan -- it was wonderful having a driver on call everyday and I also really like seeing the countryside and having the ability to stop whenever I want to. I fly quite a bit, and it seems to me that by the time you make it to the airport, check-in, get through security, wait around for an hour or two, you might as well drive (obviously depending on how far you are going). Now, I agree it is probably more comfortable to fly (especially on Kingfisher), but I didn't think the roads were THAT bad.

    I really hope you enjoy your planning live42day and jules 39! Oh, how I wish it were me planning my next trip there!

    Marija, You've been so supportive of this trip report. How can I ever thank you for your kind words? You're obviously a wonderful person. Namaste!

    And now for my last segment!

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    Sorry it is so long!!!

    Delhi: Kali Ma!

    We arrived in Delhi five hours late. We were exhausted from the seemingly interminable wait in the clinical passenger waiting area in the Kathmandu airport, and ravenous too, as we feared leaving the room to find food and by doing so, losing our valuable seats and having to go back through the long security lines again. In spite of that, we were happy to see the driver we had hired for the next several days waiting with our name on his sign. Delhi was still in a pretty deep fog, so we considered it fortunate that our flight actually made it into the airport at all. Dozens of flights were being cancelled, which had continued for several days, creating an exceptionally chaotic atmosphere in the airport. The driver said he was tired from waiting hours for us. I apologized. I don’t know why, as it wasn’t our doing, but I always feel responsible for others being put out. (Still, I wondered to myself, we had sent our flight details in advance, so why didn’t the driver or the car company check on our flight status with the airport or airline? I can’t imagine waiting outside the arrivals terminal for five hours when surely it was obvious from the weather at least that we were going to be delayed!) We had originally planned on seeing some sights such as the Qutb Complex and/or the Lotus Temple on our way from the airport to our B&B, but because of the flight delay, that was no longer possible. In any case, the driver had the name and location of our B&B, so we chugged along slowly through the fog dreaming of relaxation and food at the end of a hard travel day.

    As we neared Friends Colony East, the location of Delhi Bed and Breakfast, we hit some traffic at one of the intersections and as is typical of such situations in India everyone is vying for the same spot. Well, a Nirula’s delivery guy in his official red uniform on a motorbike with a metallic refrigerated box attempts to cut off our van. He’d been trying to get around us for a couple of miles and, he almost made it, to the screeching of brakes – both his and ours. Our driver immediately rolls down his window and lets into the Nirula’s guy – who shouts back, apparently adding on some choice adjectives. Whatever he says apparently provokes our driver to the point where you could almost see the steam emitting from his ears. He’s not going to take it! He cracks his door open and spits epithets back at Nirula. Nirula puts down his bike and charges over to the van and gets in our driver’s face. Our driver, who at this point has obviously forgotten that he is responsible for the safety of his three passengers, gets out of the car. A crowd gathers. The argument escalates, and while we don’t speak any Hindu, we hear both Nirula and our driver at the top of their voices invoke the name of Kali, goddess of death and destruction. Now, this is getting really ugly. The crowd gets into it – a scrum starts to swirl around us. This is scary and crazy!!! We are in the car shouting, “Just get us to our hotel!” After a few minutes, exhaustion turns my fear into sheer anger, and to the worry of DH and DD, I get out of the car, pull on the driver’s arm and scream at him, “STOP THIS NONSENSE, GET BACK IN THE VAN AND DRIVE US TO THE HOTEL!” The driver is shocked, Nirula is shocked, the crowd is shocked into momentary silence, and I push the driver toward the car and yell, “NOW!” Unbelievably, he does, and the crowd starts to dissipate and we drive away with Nirula waving his arms at us.

    We make it into Friends Colony, but now the driver is lost. Maybe he is still fuming from his argument, I don’t know, but he admits he doesn’t know how to find the B&B. What is it with these drivers?!! Maybe my expectations are too high – I mean, we just get on the internet and plug addresses into mapquest or google and voila, directions! I’m assuming that isn’t available in India? But are there no maps? DH tells him to ask for directions. We stop to ask a guard sitting in a shack, but no luck. We spot a couple out for a walk in the neighborhood, and the guy is able to give us specific directions: second right, first left, third left. We take off down the road, pass the first left, and then promptly pass the second left.
    DD says, “Hey, you just passed the turn!”
    The driver says, “No, there was no turn.”
    “Yes, back there!”
    “No, it was just a driveway.”
    “No, it was a road.” She is looking at me in disbelief.
    We continue driving and eventually come to a dead-end.
    “Turn around and go back to the road,” says DH.
    Sure enough, there is the road.
    “Oh, I thought it was a driveway.”
    Thank goodness there weren’t any other right turns to really mess us up!

    Finally, we get to the B&B. Pervez, the owner, meets us out on the street.
    “I’ve been expecting you!” he cheerfully greets us. “What took you so long?”
    “Don’t ask!” I say. I think he understands. Turns out the guy who gave us directions is a close friend of Pervez and he called him to tell him we were looking for his place. Sweet!
    We are immediately invited in for tea. Wonderful!
    Pervez has our bags unloaded and taken to our rooms and we sit in a cozy central room and enjoy tea with a very reserved, straight, but cute, British couple, who will depart for Simla tomorrow. (They actually bring to mind the couples’ dinner in Bridget Jones’ Diary – Hi Bridge!)

    There is a knock at the door, and Pervez goes out to answer it.
    He comes back in to tell me it’s the driver.
    Oh yeah, the driver.
    I go out and he tells me I need to pay him for the next 3 days in advance.
    “What?!! No, absolutely not.”
    (Am I wrong here? I have not had to pay any driver anywhere I have ever been for services in advance!)
    “But Madam, that is our policy.”
    “I will pay you for today, but that’s it.”
    “I will have to call my supervisor.”
    “Fine. Call. I am not paying you anything in advance.”
    I wait as he calls his office on his cell phone and proceeds to discuss the situation with his dispatcher.
    “He wants to talk to you.” He hands me the phone.
    “Yes?”
    “Madam, you hired us for half of a day today, all day tomorrow and half a day after that.” Mr. Dispatcher is talking to me as if I am an idiot. I am trying to remain calm and polite.
    “Yes, I did, but I am not paying you in advance. I will pay you at the end of each day. And, by the way, please send me a different driver. This idiot almost got us killed. He got in a fight with another driver, put us at risk of a mob, and then he got lost trying to find our hotel. Don’t even think of sending him back.” I am doing my assertive/polite best.
    “Don’t worry, he is not your driver tomorrow,” the dispatcher says in that Indian sing-songy voice. I can imagine his head bobbling. “But you must pay him for our services. In advance of tomorrow.”
    “No, I will pay him for today and that is it.”
    “Fine, OK, then.” The dispatcher realizes I am not going to back down.
    Pervez is standing by listening with wide eyes.
    “How much do I owe for today?”
    “Eighty dollars Madam.”
    “WHAT?!!! I DO NOT owe you eighty dollars for a ride from the airport!”
    I am no longer calm.
    “Our driver waited for you there since one pm and you hired us for half a day,” Mr. Dispatcher protested. They are trying to take me, I think to myself. The LAST straw!
    “You had my flight schedule and my cell phone number, why didn’t one of you call me or the airline or the airport and find out that we were delayed?!! I am not going to pay you for your driver waiting around an airport all day. He did not render any services to us except to drive us to the hotel – and it was clear you knew our schedule in advance, including that you understood it was a possibility we might not be able to visit anything depending on when we arrived. It was in our emails to each other. Do I have to go dig out the email and read it to you?!!”
    (TIP: Get as much as you can in writing in advance. We HAD in fact communicated the fact that we might not get to do anything that afternoon, depending on our flights – it was the car company that had suggested we might be able to fit some things in after our airport pickup!)
    “And listen to me. Are you listening to me? Don’t bother sending a driver tomorrow or the day after. I AM FIRING YOU!!!”
    Both the driver and Pervez are listening in apparent amazement.
    “OK, it is twenty-seven dollars Madam,” says Mr. Dispatcher.
    “Fine.” I toss the cell phone back at the driver, pull out the money and brusquely hand it to him. I almost dropped it on the ground, but I restrained myself.

    I turn to walk back into the house with Pervez.
    “Was I wrong Pervez?”
    “Not at all. I was wondering what took you so long and why you were so polite!”
    “It’s an American thing, I think. You’re right – I was too nice.”

    I enter the little drawing room where the tea party is going on.
    “Is everything OK? DH asks.
    “Fine. I fired them.”
    “Good!” says DD.
    Pervez offers to set us up with a driver tomorrow. I have no idea whether this is going to work out, but at this point, we’re nearing the end of our trip and I am worn out from the haggling. It’s nice to have someone else make the arrangements for once.
    “Great. Excellent. Can he be here tomorrow at 10?”
    “No problem. If there is anything else I can help with, let me know.”
    “Actually there is,” DD says. “I am starving. Is there a good restaurant nearby?”
    “You can go to Friends Colony Community Center. There are some restaurants there.”
    “How far?” I ask.
    “It’s a bit of a walk, but not too, too far, or you can go to the end of the road and get a taxi or rickshaw there.”

    We decide to get a rickshaw instead of walking. We are tired.
    We wander out to the main road, but there is just one cycle rickshaw there, with room only for two, and there are three of us.
    “You want rickshaw?” the elderly skinny little driver asks. He is dressed in a dhoti and slip-on sandals, a suit jacket and turban.
    “Yes, but we need another one.”
    “No problem, I take you all. Fifty Rupees.”
    “But there is just room for two,” I say. And with our ample derrieres, it’s going to be crowded on that seat even with just a couple of us.
    “One sits here,” he points to his seat.
    “But where will you sit?” DH asks the driver.
    “It’s not far. I don’t need to sit.”
    So DD takes the cycle seat, facing backwards and DH and I cram our butts into the “two-person” passenger seat. The little guy takes off and DD grabs our arms so she doesn’t fall off the rickshaw. She has nothing to hold on to and we are moving like the wind! OMG, this guy is strong! He is peddling standing up and dragging at least 5 times his own weight. Absolutely impressive.
    We get to Friends Colony Community Center in a flash.
    He offers to wait and take us back, which is great!

    We opt for dinner at the Yum-Yum Tree, a Chinese place, and it turns out to be an excellent dinner. Maybe it’s because it’s so late and we are so hungry, but everything tastes delicious. We start with crispy fired okra and some dim sum for an appetizer. Manhattans all around -- it has been a tough day! DD has spinach soup and mock duck. DH has wonton soup and Peking duck. I have roasted duck and udon noodle soup (ducks are having a bad night with us!) and sea bass with garlic sauce. For dessert, jasmine tea, and we share some sesame ice cream, chocolate shortbread cookies and a pomegranate martini mousse with a pomegranate rum sauce. About $120 for the night – a tad on the expensive side, but we thought it was worth it. The staff was very attentive and the service was excellent. On our way out, they gifted me with a luscious box of chocolates. Yum, yum!

    Sure enough, the cycle rickshaw driver is patiently waiting for us, even though it has gotten really late (we closed out the restaurant). We climb back on, but the ride back is much longer – the roads are one way, so to get back to the B&B we have to circle all the way around the colony to get back. The driver is starting to slow down – I am hoping our now even more abundant mass won’t kill him before we get back. I am still absolutely amazed at what these guys do. We give him a huge tip – 50 Rs (about a buck) is just not enough for his feat!

    Next morning we enjoy a lovely breakfast around a big table where we meet a charming young American couple who have just arrived and ready to embark on their own Indian odyssey. Their plans sound great. Pervez joins us. We are waited on by his elderly mother Padma, who continually keeps our plates filled with parathas and pakoras. Pervez is a great conversationalist and very funny, and we laugh a lot. He has arranged a car and sightseeing day for us, which turned out better than we ever could have expected. We start at Humayun’s Tomb, which is the precursor to the Taj, and which I actually like better, because it is quieter (and maybe because the fog here is not as dense). Then we go over to the Crafts Museum, which has some interesting exhibits and an amazing textile collection (if you like that sort of thing – which I happen to – DH not so much).

    Next we stop at the India Gate, which is overflowing with people and street merchants selling little mechanical toys, balloons and bangles. DD decides to get her hand hennaed. We get taken, and we know it, and the crowd around us is shocked at the price we are paying – the stupid, white tourist price, no doubt – but the henna is very detailed and looks great, so she’s happy. We drive up the Rajpath past the government buildings – an amazing site in and of itself. Bleachers are being set up in preparation for Independence Day coming up on January 26th.

    After lunch at a non-descript tourist place we drive into Old Delhi. It’s massively crowded and it takes forever to weave through the old city streets. We visit Jami Masjid – the largest mosque in India – DD is getting quite a few stares here and lots of sneak photos taken. It’s amusing how the teenagers (and some not so young) sidle up and pretend they are with you while their friends snap photos with their cell phones. Our photos are now stored on phones all over India! We need a restroom, and we are directed by the sock-seller to the bottom of the steps to the left side of the mosque. There is nothing there but a huge set of double iron doors. We shrug at each other and I knock. The door opens a crack.
    “Toilet?” I ask.
    The door opens wider and we are invited in by a youngish man who points toward a door.
    DD goes in first and DH and I sit on a bench in the courtyard.
    Three little girls in various stages of undress come wandering out of a tiny room next to the toilet room. They begin to dance around us, smiling and tipping their heads coyly.
    Their mother calls to them – they are supposed to be getting ready for their bath – but they continue to dance and hum and ignore her calls.
    Mum finally comes out with her hands on her hips and scolds them to come in. The littlest one stays behind and continues staring and smiling at us, stark naked, and finally Dad, the young man who answered the gate, comes out and calls to her and she reluctantly and slowly skips in for her bath.
    BTW, the toilet is pretty clean, but the bowl has foot treads on it, even though it is a foot and a half off the ground. Do people really get up there and squat? I guess so!

    After wandering the lanes around the mosque and Chandni Chowk, we finish our day of sightseeing at the Red Fort. It must have been quite the place in its day – gorgeous marble inlay, much like the Taj. Very pleasant to stroll around here for a couple of hours.

    For our evening pleasure we find a movie theater on Connaught Place and see the new Aamir Khan pic Ghajini. Man, that guy is built! Wow, what an 8-pack! Anyway, I digress – it was a fabulous way to end a jam-packed day.

    Our last day in India has sadly arrived. We’ve loved it – even the difficult parts – and we are both sad and happy to be going home. We have breakfast around the big round table again with the young Americans, who report having had a great day of Delhi sightseeing yesterday, and a newly arrived older couple from New Zealand. Peter is returning to India after many years, and Teresa is here for the first time. I don’t know what Peter does for a living, but Teresa says she teaches meditation. Hmmm. I think she’s going to have a great time in India!

    After packing for the final time, we say our goodbyes to Pervez and the Delhi B&B. It turned out to be a nice respite at the end of our trip. The driver picks us up and we make a couple more stops before the airport: the Lotus Temple (which I find somewhat creepy) and the Qutb Complex – the perfect end to a fantastic holiday. My photo card is full, so it’s really time to go.

    Kingfisher wings us off to Mumbai, where we board our flight back to the USA. In spite of the chaos of India, I know I am returning home with a new sense of balance.

    Thanks to those who have stuck with me and followed my stories. If it’s not obvious, I left India with an immediate desire to return.
    Now the only question is: when?!!

    For those interested here are some of my photos – best viewed in slideshow, set the seconds as desired:

    http://picasaweb.google.com/Christystravelpics/IndiaAndNepal?authkey=Gv1sRgCPztxvOJtrOMwAE#

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    Your writing is only surpassed by your amazing photography. Loved it. It reminded me of Cambodia in places. What kind of a camera did you use? We just returned from Tanzania and were not able to take photos of people very often. Did you have any problems? Did you take them on the sly, or did you pay them? I am really excited now and think that this will probably be the best trip yet!
    Thanks for all the info.

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    Travelaw, thanks for giving me many minutes of vicarious enjoyment. I read the Mumbai (which we are visiting shortly) part a while ago and just came back to finish up. Very generous of you to have put so much effort into it. Luckily, the best trip reports live on to entertain and inform others for months, maybe years. Your use of people's quotes really beings eaach episode to life. You may be a lawyer but you have the sensibilty of a journalist.
    Leslie

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    Thanks so much live42day and LAleslie! You are both so nice and I appreciate your very kind comments.

    Live, I used a Panasonic TZ50. Its a small camera with a great wideangle/telephoto lens. This was the first trip that I used it -- actually, it is my first digital camera ever. I really like film for its depth, but it has just gotten too expensive to develop the film, and its so much easier to share photos with digital. The nice thing about this camera is that you can fit it in your pocket, so it doesn't draw attention and yet has a long enough lens that you can get great close-ups. So, no, I did not pay for any of these photos -- they were all taken on the sly. I LOVE people shots and try to get as many as I can get away with -- and I try very hard not to disturb anyone by doing it.

    Leslie, I hope you have a great time in Mumbai! We really liked it and hope to go back again soon. Thanks for your journalist comment. If I hadn't gone to law school, I would have loved being a journalist -- it is so much more interesting to write about travel than legal documents!!! If I could travel all the time, I would!

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    Well, I loved the report. Lots of kudos for the way you traveled. But I was upset to read "they were all taken on the sly". I don't like to have my photo taken, and I try hard to respect other people's feelings in the matter. Except for general street scenes, I ask first, and if the answer is no, I don't take the photo (and I don't pay, either).

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    Glad you liked the report thursdaysd, but sorry to upset you so about my photography. I respect your feelings on taking people's photos, but I respectfully disagree that one should always ask before taking someone's photo. I never take a person's photo if they are in a compromising position -- and there were plenty of opportunities for that on this trip -- and quite frankly, it is not my intention to invade a person's privacy. The reality is, a person does not have a right to privacy when they are in public. Moreover, I feel that I cannot capture the essence of what I am seeing with posed vs. candid shots. There are a few posed shots in this set, but they are not my favorites. That said, I understand your thoughts and hope that we can agree to disagree respectfully on this issue.
    Thanks for reading!

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    Thanks for the reply. I agree that in the US it is legally correct that "a person does not have a right to privacy when they are in public". However, you weren't in the US, you were in a country were very many people have no choice but to live their lives in public whether they want to or not. Also, attitudes towards photography vary by culture. I was just in Morocco, where photographing women in particular is not generally acceptable. It's true that candid shots are better than posed, but I don't think that's a good enough reason to go against the wishes of your subject.

    I'm also aware that with the proliferation of cell phones and compact camcorders, my dislike of being photographed is becoming decidedly old-fashioned - I might have to start wearing a burkha!

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    I think you are coming down on me too hard. Most of the areas we visited in India were well-worn travel destinations, and I believe most people realize that there are bound to be people with cameras taking photos in these areas. And, I am not aware of any law in any country that provides people a right of privacy in public -- if there were I would certainly abide by it. In fact, I must assume, given the number of times MY photo was taken in India and in Nepal by locals with cell phones just because I am white, means that even the locals don't believe there is a right to privacy in public. That said, I agree there are cultures where photography of people is not acceptable -- the Amish in the USA for instance, and yes, women in Morocco -- which I honor each time I am in that country. People are everywhere with camcorders and cell phone cameras and it is impossible to ask the subjects for permission to take their photo -- that's all I'd be doing on my trip if I did. I haven't done a search on this, but have you expressed this opinion to others who have posted their photos here? I didn't see you express any concern about privacy cocnerning people in the lovely videos of Boudhnath currently on this forum. Should that photographer have asked all those people for permission to shoot the video? Would it be permissible for me to take video and then capture single shots from the footage? In fact, I would bet that you yourself have many photos with people in them that you did not ask permission to take. So what is the difference from my photos? Because I took them in public at a distance with a long lens there is something wrong with that? When I take my photographs of places I visit, I find the people to be most compelling. Forts and buildings and even scenery are nice, but they are all made better with people in them. Places are about the people, not the buildings.

    As to the burka, that is your choice. You might also avoid London and many other cities and countries,and most airports, because it is not camera-toting tourists that will be taking your photo, but the government. I wish you luck in staying private in public in this day and age!

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    Yes, I have expressed this opinion before. See in particular http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/taking-pics-of-people-in-india.cfm. And I haven't looked at the videos you mention (I have to get my taxes done before I leave on my next trip).

    I believe in the variant of the Golden Rule that says "do unto others as they would have you do" (as distinct from "do as you would be done by") and I don't think that my desire for a good photo trumps someone else's desire not to have their photo taken. Obviously this varies by culture, but if you have reason to think that someone doesn't want their photo taken, yes, I think you should ask, and honor the response. If you feel that you have to take the photo "on the sly" that suggests that you would expect the answer "no".

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    "On the sly" was a term that was used in a question posed to me -- I only apologize for allowing that characterization to frame this debate. I am not hiding when I take my photos. You are spinning this to make me out to be some kind of voyeur. However, I make no apologies for my photos and I will not be changing the way I take my photographs. I suggest you stop judging people and trying to enforce your holier-than-thou sensibilities on others.
    I am now sorry I posted my photos. I won't make that mistake again. Congratulations! In spite of all the wonderful people on this forum, you alone have now officially soured my experience here, of which I have been a member for many years.
    Have fun doing your taxes and I hope you enjoy your trip.

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    I am so sorry that I have started this debate for you. I should not have used the term 'on the sly'. I too, used my telephoto lens in Africa and other countries to get those wonderful natural pictures of people. Please dont let one poster sour your experience here as you have certainly given much joy to everyone else with your amazing stories and your pictures. I plan to take many pictures as well and feel the same way that you do. I know that when I was in China I had many many people come and take thier pictures with me because I have light hair and green eyes. I kept trying to get out of the picture as I thought that I was in the way of thier shot and then my friend said, 'no they want to take YOUR picture'. In Africa or other places if people did not want thier pictures taken I would respect that, and not be obvious at any time with a camera lens in their faces, but hang back and be (what I think) was respectfully discreet. I feel that you are probably respectful in what you do as well by the way that you write. Keep doing what you are doing and remember that , to quote a cliche, 'one bad apple....'

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    It is a great shame that this thread and wonderful report has been soured by some bigot pushing their own beliefs and expecting others to agree with them

    In many cases it is impossible to ask your subject for permission to take a photograph and if you do, the chances are that the photo you saw has gone for good as your subject reacts to being photographed.

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    Great report! My husband and I are going to northwest India in November-December and I will use many of your suggestions. We've narrowed our scope to Delhi, Agra, Khajuraho, Varanasi, Gwalior, Jaipur, and Udaipur and will have boots-on-the ground for about three weeks.

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    Thanks again for a fantastic report and photos. I just got back from a weeklong trip (Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan) and India was every bit as fabulous as I had hoped it would be. Your trip report is a tantalizing way for newbies to get a taste of this amazing country and, for those of us lucky enough to have gone, a wonderful way to relive our own experiences. Brava!

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    You have no idea what it means to me to receive such kind words and support.

    Clark55 and jules 39: Sometimes you wonder if anyone cares at all and if it's worth your time, and then, voila -- a response from folks like you. Thank you!

    Tangata: You are a wonderful person to defend me. Just going to a place and looking at people could also be considered piercing their privacy, but then, why travel at all? For me at least, my photos help me keep memories of my trips alive. And when things get bad or annoying where I am, I can pull them out and renew my love for humanity and all its many faces.

    Indianapearl: How exciting! Do enjoy planning your trip -- that feeling of anticipation is wonderful. I hope you have a great time and will report back afterward. Please let me know if I can answer any questions for you.

    msmango: Welcome back!!!! I am so glad you had a fabulous trip. You were a great motivator for me to get this report written. Thank you! I hope you will write a trip report. I'd love to read about your experiences and your reactions to India. It really is a great country, isn't it? I have not been able to get it out of my head since I've returned. My DH said the other day that we'd better go somewhere awesome this year, otherwise he's going keep hearing about India and being made to watch Bollywood movies. Ha! Hate to tell him, but I don't think I will ever get over India!

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    Wow! I just came across this beautifully written trip report today and so enjoyed the few hours spent traveling with you in India!

    So many memories and so many new places intimately described!

    Your descriptions of Dharavi brought back memories of reading "City of Hope" while travelling in India and then ending up exploring the slums of Calcutta.

    Yes, the Indian trains!

    Yes, those brilliant colored saris!

    Yes, the masses of beggar children!

    Yes, the paratha - used to have a Pakistani student living in the same college rooming house and she would make paratha every night! Fresh paratha or chapatti! Yum!

    Thanks so much for sharing! Your trip has been most enjoyable! And the pictures were just great too!

    You live in a wonderful city filled with restaurants from around the world! Hope you found some good Indian restaurants to revive your memories!

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    OK so I completely procrastinated working today to read the entire report. WOW. Incredible, absolutely incredible. I have been wanting to visit India for years. I'd love to visit many of the places you detail here, but my main reason is for yoga. I'm a yoga instructor and would love to spend some time in Mysore or at an ashram. Definitely keeping this trip report handy for when I eventually start working on my trip planning down the road.
    Thank you thank you thank you for all the details.
    As an amateur photographer, now I will go and procrastinate more by checking out your photo albums.

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    Thank you so much BostonGal! I really enjoyed your report on SEA as well -- am hoping to do HK and Vietnam in the near future, so your info will be of great help. Our reports were both featured in last week's Fodor's newsletters -- so cool! I hope you enjoy the photos -- I am a complete amateur, but would love to take a photography tour like you did in Cambodia -- also one of my fav countries, BTW. I hope you do get to India soon -- once it gets in your system, you can't get it out! When you're ready to go, let us know -- I got so much help from the folks here I could never repay them!

    magical and easytraveler: Thanks so much for your kind postings. It warms my heart that you enjoyed my report so much. Thanks for reading!

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    I have a question for Indiaphiles on this site: Do I need to take a mosquito net? I have a small one-person net that I've found quite useful in my travels. Most European countries we've visited don't use screens in the windows because they think they don't have insects. My husband was attacked by mosquitoes for three days in a villa where we stayed on the Costa Brava (I slept in a separate room with the door and windows closed). Since then I always take it with us when we go to Europe or Latin America.

    Thanks!

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    It probably depends on where and when you are traveling. We were there during December/January mostly in Rajasthan and we didn't see any mosquitos, even though we religiously took our malarone -- but Dogster recently reported masses of mosquitos in Udaipur. If the net is small, it shouldn't be too much to pack it if you're worried.

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    Heya trav: just read the last wonderful episode. As you'll understand, it's kinda hard for me to focus 100% right now on finding words to tell you what a joy and an inspiration it has been to read. It's been a real delight to watch you relax and grow in confidence as the report has progressed - and to read your pleasure at the well-deserved appreciation you have received.

    Don't think for a moment that things have been sullied by thursday's comments - she's a brave warrior with strong ideas about the politics of travel. That's cool... don't stress.

    There's an old show-biz adage: there's no such thing as bad publicity. Actually, thursday has done us all a favour: she's brought your post back to the front of the board, added to your readership, given it a touch of controversy and a little bit of spice - and made people think. Don't be hurt.

    Thanks trav. This has been magical writing, acute observation, insight and detail - and made me laugh, gasp and cry. We are all in your debt.

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    Thank you dog. I am truly blessed by your support. Beneath that mangy (and self-described "elderly"? NAH!!! That's all in your mind!) exterior, you are a sweetheart.

    I admit I was a bit hurt by Thursday -- I probably overreacted to what I felt was a distortion of my motives and an assertion that I was somehow violating the "Golden Rule." I recoiled, hid for a few days, threw myself a bit of a pity party, examined my motives, which I concluded are indeed pure, and decided I wasn't going to let her judgmental and outlier standards prevent me from enjoying the way I take photos, or my particpation and enjoyment of this forum. I've been here a long time, benefited greatly from the information traded in here, and finally, after many years decided to file a full report, which I hadn't done even after many, many trips, out of fear of rejection. I think perhaps that worry contributed to my reaction. I also concluded that politics does not belong in travel, but I know that doesn't stop some people from imposing their idiosyncratic ideals on others. I'll also admit that I am a bit of a rebel -- always have been, always will be. I like to do things my own way, with my own sensibilities and I react badly when others criticize me. It goes back to my childhood . . . Ha! Doesn't it always?

    In any case, one of these days I will start planning my next trip to India (coincidentally, I received a Pandaw brochure in the mail today!!) and I will be knocking on your door for suggestions and advice. Sounds like you have had one heck of another adventure this time. Curious what happened at the Imperial -- but with you, anything can (and does) happen!!!

    You've got one thing wrong: I am in ya'lls debt!

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    @Travelawg: Thanks for the info. I have friend from Delhi and she's been instructing me about immunizations and comestibles ("don't drink the water"). It's probably better to be safe than sorry.

    If you want info about HK, let me know. We spent a month there last spring. Absolutely wonderful to have that much time. Every day I saw something interesting as I went about my day.

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    trav I just had the chance to really look at your photos they are great. Thank you so much!! As I am trying to calculate timeing for our trip to India in early 2010 could I ask you to do a very quick outline of your itinerary in Raj & varanasi eg. how many nights you spent in each place. I am trying to figure out how many nights in each spot & how far we can travel in a day!! We do not want to go too fast & it has been long enough since our last trip there that I would love to see what exactly you did. I did do a search to see if I could find your itinerary but I could not find it. Thanks again trav I so much appreciate the talents of those of you who can really write about what you have seen.
    J

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    jules39: I'm planning a three week trip, part by car, part by air, in Rajasthan, Agra areas, and Varanasi. You can check out Google maps to get exact routes, mileage, and driving times.

    I've gotten us to Agra after Rajasthan and am working on the Gwalior, Orchha, Khajuraho, and Varanasi end of the trip.

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    Hi jules39!
    We combined our modes of travel, but really liked having the car in Rajasthan. We were prepared for difficult car trips, but it really wasn't as bad as we had expected. The longest day was probably Jaisalmer to Bikaner, but it really wasn't a bad road and we didn't mind the trip - we broke it up with a stop in Khichan to visit the cranes.
    Here are the number of nights we spent in each place:
    Mumbai 3
    overnight train to Ahmedabad
    Udaipur 3
    (stop at Ranakpur on trip to Jodhpur)
    Jodhpur 3
    Jaisalmer 3
    Bikaner 2
    Mandawa 3
    Jaipur 3
    Agra 3 (train to Jhansi then short drive to Orchha)
    Orchha 1
    Khajuraho 3 (fly to Varanasi)
    Varanasi 4 (fly to Kathmandu)
    Kathmandu 3 (fly to Delhi)
    Delhi 2 (fly back to Mumbai and then home)


    landineen!!! Yay!!! I'm so glad I helped motivate you to take the plunge. I hope you have a fabulous trip! When are you going? Please let me know if I can help in any way.

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    Thanks trav! I just about have a first pass at an itin for us in my head! I will start another post and put in there hopefully over the weekend. Unfortunately we don't have as much time as you so I am trying to get that balance of not rushing too much.I think we will get a driver as we enjoy the drives. Have done it before in rough places & haven't regretted it. Thanks again.
    J

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    Thanks trav! We are flying in and out of Delhi. Will drive from there to Jaipur, Jodhpur, and Udaipur. I think we'll do a day trip to Ranakpur from either Jodhpur or Udaipur. Trying to decide if we should fly or train it to Uttar Pradesh. The drive is too long for old people . . . but perhaps it might be fun.

    While we want to see the Taj, I'm concerned that Agra will be overrun with tourists (just like us) and would rather stay in a quieter place like Gwalior and do a day trip to Agra as well. Jansi seems to be a travel hub, but not that interesting, yes, no?

    More later.

    And thanks again to all who have been so helpful!

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    Hi indianpearl!

    I think you should spend at least one night in Agra -- everyone says the Amarvilas is worth the money, but we were on a little bit lower budget and stayed at the Taj View, which was quite nice -- and we didn't feel like it was overcrowded with tourists. The Taj Mahal itself will have lots of touists, of course -- but we got there as soon as it opened in the morning -- and there were maybe 30 people there with us -- it was great to be there in the relative quiet before the crowds came (if only it hadn't been so foggy!!!). There ARE a few other things to see in Agra beside the Taj, which is why you might want to spend the night instead of zooming in and out. Also, is Fatehpur Sikri on your itinerary? That is close to Agra and can be seen either on your way in or out -- or as a daytrip from Agra.

    Which locations are you planning for UP? We ended up using a combination of train/car/plane there. We trained from Agra to Jhansi (yes, Jhansi is pretty much just a travel hub), where our driver picked us up and drove us to Orchha -- the train stops in Gwalior, too, so that would work for you. We were advised that the drive between Agra and Jhansi was very rough, which is why we took the train. From Orchha to Khajuraho we drove -- which wasn't a bad drive at all. Then we flew from Khajuraho to Varanasi. We really liked Orchha -- it was clean, quiet and walkable -- and the hotels seemed very nice. What few tourists were there were mostly European/Australian than American. We really would have liked to have gone to Gwalior to see the fort, but didn't have enough time. If you go there, please, please do a review, as I would be very interested to hear about your impressions of it.

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    The trains and planes from east to west seem to be non-existent, so we are back to either flying or driving to Udaipur, then going back through Jaipur with a stop at Ranakpur on the way to Jodhpur. Your story of the hotel at Jodhpur and Mallett make it seem quite charming. We'd then drive to Agra (two days there) by way of Jaipur then train to Gwalior. I'd hate to miss it --- NYT did a great article awhile back along with one or Orccha. Maybe we'll stay in O. instead of Jhansi. We'll drive to Khajuraho, then fly to Varanasi, then to Delhi, then home. We have plenty of time to decide, although we've booked the Delhi B & B for two nights already.

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    travelaw, I've just seen your posts - we got back some 3 weeks ago, from a 3 week jaunt around various compass points of India - then back to the grind of work the next day, so I've kept away from fodors, just going over & over the impressions & experiences. Now I've seen your reports I've got to tell you they brought it all back, plus memories of our Rajastan trip 4 years ago, great entusiastic & humorous writing; you really got engaged with the place! Fantastic.

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    Aww,shucks. Thanks so much leon! It's so hard going right back to the grind after being in India -- I know exactly how you feel. I do hope you will have time at some point to post a trip report. I would absolutely love to read your impressions!

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    Hi Travelaw, did you take a notebook or laptop with you, or rely on internet cafes? If you did use your own computer was it easy to get wifi or connected in India?
    If anyone else has any information and brand names to choose I would greatly appreciate it.
    I am just thinking it will be easier to have my own computer than rely on internet cafes from now on, but rather than lug my big laptop I will look at a small 'notebook'. I have a blackberry but they are very difficult to write long messages on.
    thanks for any help.

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    Both your monumental reports & the dogster's surreal visions have awed me into nervous inaction, trip report-wise - but for now my memories of February 2005 that clicked into life from your posts:

    the wonderful rat temple near Bikaner. I too said there is no way I'm gonna go in there! two minutes later I'm meekly accompanying my significant other (let's call her Zee, warrior princess) into the scuttling scampering amonia- scented (rat pee) temple, to the wry amusement of our driver, the gentlemanly, polite Mr Khan (of whom more below), & actually although I had a moment of 'what the hell am i actually doing here in this crazy place' introspection, it actually was really interesting, if not a great deal of fun. Just kept thinking 'waht a story to tell'; but like you & others, sadly no one else who hasn't spent some time off the beaten track in India really gets what a wonderful confusing incredible sometimes tragic place it is.

    We also stayed in Mandawa, almost next door to the Castle Hotel you stayed in, can't remember the name but it was a beautifully restored haveli with divine food & really reasonable. Some morose local guide (can't call him a Jimmy 'cos he just didn't care) listlessly showed around several havelis, some of which had been re-occupied by families/squatters, & saw some tremendous murals - one from about 19thC with very explicit sexual activities in a victorian train.

    'tour operator' blues - we used the Ajanta Hotel service from Delhi - their choice of hotels in Rajastan was almost uniformly abysmal, but luckily i insisted on using two places we saw online, the one in Mandawa, & a lovely guest house in Jaipur run by a chap called Freddie. However the driver they gave us in suitably sedate Hindustan Ambassador with curtains in the rear window & no speed greater than 40 mph, was great. A reserved, elderly man, always in a blazer & neatly pressed trousers, Mr Khan was not a regular guide, but once he relaxed a little with us, had some fascinating stories to tell. Despite our constant urging, he never ate with us, but always waited outside ready to drive on -a perfect gentleman, although one who enjoyed the paan, & why not. Just something about his bearing first made me consider that the lot of Muslims in India can clearly be very difficult, not that he would ever complain.

    Coming up to date, on this trip we also stayed at Pervez & Lubna's guesthouse after a scary taxi ride in rush traffic - only a minor fender bump en route with both drivers scornfully ignoring each other then driving on, not the full-on road rage of your trip. Pervez made us laugh too - here's this guy arranging trips around India, who readily admits he doesn't travel to these places - seems quite happy in downtown Delhi!

    If I'm anything to go by, you will also return - I started with not really wanting to go to India at all (rather like the rat temple) then becoming amazed & almost obsessed - repelled yet fascinated.

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    And another thing - that 'fog' in Agra. I too opened the window of our grubby little hell hole in the morning to find dense white fog - the diesel taste IMO made it good ol' filthy industrial smog. Maybe a cocktail of the two. We were lucky enough to have a fantastic afternoon view of the Taj. Dog I know you don't do dead buildings, but I have to tell you if the light is right, & your imagination, you can almost shut out extraneous tourist/jimmy babble & feel something of what some of India's (same goes for Angor Wat)incredible buildings were & the people who used them, loved, fought & died in them. Also the Fort, & the lovely Fatehpur Sikri, just wonderful.
    Mind you there was fog there too, which made the place utterly mystical.

    A thought about taking photo's - last month I was running the cam corder ever so quickly past some women selling fish in Majorda, Goa, & they all shouted at me to stop with very blunt gestures. I stopped & a Dutch tourist with us said that some people believed the soul could be stolen by cameras. Made me realise you have to (try &) respect the style of where you are (unless those beliefs are utterly repugnant) but part of travelling I guess is making insensitive mistakes & learning accordingly. It is really hard because beautiful pictures of beautiful people are such a potent memory of once in a lifetime experiences.

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    live42day: We did not bring our own computer -- we just relied on the hotels and internet cafes. I know dogster recently mentioned that he took a laptop, but it seems from his posts that that it did not work out very well. Hopefully he will see this and let you know his experience.

    leon: Great stuff! So much fun to read your posts! Was it the Hotel Monica in Mandawa? And yes, the lovely fragrance in the rat temple -- I'm afraid I will never forget it!
    You know I will return to India -- I can't help myself -- hopefully it will be soon!

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    Mandawa Haveli; & Hotel Madhuban in Jaipur. No idea if they're still open, but were both excellent value. Your note of the trucks with lavish ornamentation & 'horn please!' reminded me of those honking rigs - what I loved was the scowling face (Kali?) on the axle, & in front the seductive kudgel-painted eyes above the headlights. How many weird & wonderful forms of transport, especially Rajastan, including camels, elephants, donkeys & oxen, plus inumerable variations of 2, 3, or 4 wheel motorised overcrowded heaving straining spluttering noisy conveyances.

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    You Dog! I have to guess Mumbai. I really thought you might make it to Alexandria, but I guessed wrong . . ha, ha! I should know better by now, shouldn't I? Good to hear from you man, wherever you are -- it'll be interesting to see where you end up!!!

    PS It appears it's not India that keeps going offline, but dogster!

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    We are planning our first trip to india leaving
    in 4 weeks. What immunizations are a MUST?
    Also, can we fly from Jaipur direct to Kathmandu or do we have to go back to Delhi and fly from there?
    Any help would be appreciated.

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    You should call your doctor or travel health clinic about immunizations. If you're leaving in 4 weeks, you ought to do this immediately. We got Hep A & B, Typhoid and a Tetanus before we left, as recommended, but it's up to you what you think is necessary. We also got malarone for malaria prevention. I do not know whether you can fly direct from Jaipur to Kathmandu -- you could check travelocity.co.in or call a local travel agent, but I would think you need to go back through Delhi.

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    thanks for all the great info.
    We are doing all of the above but not the Malarone because my husband doesn't like to take pills for that long and also we were told that we can't have any alcohol with it, which would ruin our wine with dinner plans.:)

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    1) Speaking of wine with dinner, how difficult is it to find restaurants that serve wine with dinner outside of hotels?

    2) Jagat Niwas in Udaipur looks like a great location, but a guide we just read said it's a bit noisy. Does anyone have any comment on that?

    Thanks!

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    Based on a lot of personal experience in Africa and India, I can assure you that the only problem with mixing Malarone and wine is if you get bad wine. The safari lodges in Africa would be littered with ailing clients if the two didn't mix!

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    Good point...we'll reconsider the Malarone if you think it's a must.
    Also, we will be in Kathmandu for 2 nights. Can anyone recommend a good place to stay, authentic yet with certain luxuries. conveniently located.

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    Marija you just gave me "funny" mental image of all the safari goers having a reaction to mixing their wine & Malerone!

    V Sapi do a search on Kathmandu hotels there were a few reports over the past year talking about hotels. Two I remember were by Kathie & Dogster but I know there were more.

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    as V_Sapi hasn't done even the most basic of research at all on anything and insists on tagging other people's beautifully written literary masterpieces with questions they could answer with ten seconds on Google search they are not allowed access to my suggestions.

    I have swum ashore to say this.

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    No need to be rude..it's just as easy to answer politely.
    It is obvious that we are new to Asia travel and are asking for a lot of help. Many people on this forum are kind enough to help us even with the most seemingly mundane questions, which actually helped us tremendously!

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    Dog paddle, I presume. We miss you. Tell us more, please! We know you're not on that boat. We need to find out if you ever got on it or where you got off so we can award an appropriate prize to the winner.

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    Don't get offended by dogster v -- he has your best interests at heart. We will help you as much as we can, but also realize dogster is giving you some good advice -- digging for some of the answers to your questions by doing a search yourself is very rewarding and will enhance your enjoyment of your trip.

    pearl -- we had no problems with noise at the Jagat Niwas -- but that may depend on the location of whatever room you get -- ask for a quiet one. Also, don't expect soft beds -- their beds are pretty standard Indian hard.

    dogster luv, that you swam ashore just to comment -- and to write such lovely comments about my report (undeservingly so!) -- I am deeply touched. Shukriya.

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    The report I read indicated that the Jagat Niwas was popular with tour groups --- yuck! --- but tour groups aren't necessarily noisy. I noted on the Udaipur map that the JN was close to the lake and the City Palace --- see, Dogster, I did my research!! (Aging scientists never die --- they just take long holidays.)

    Thanks again, travelawg, for your sage advice. I've printed out your entire trip report and refer to it several times a day . . .

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    Tourism was pretty dead when we were there, as it was not too long after 26/11. We heard that many tour groups had cancelled -- maybe that is why it was quiet?

    So glad you're finding my trip report helpful pearl!

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    Hi, while doing some research for a friend I found you post and read it all in one sitting (and printed it and passed it on to my friend. What a pleasure my Sunday was because your beautiful writing!

    I wanta prepare you - your lust for India never dies. I was 36 years old the first time I left the country and now am a true travel junkie. The first time we went to India I only left after my husband promised he'd bring me back. The second time we left India it was a little easier because I had another big trip coming up. The 3rd time I left India I actually cried at the airport because I did Not want to leave. Our plans are to visit the South early next year!
    Thanks, again!

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    Hi impacked! Thanks so much for your kind words. I am so glad you enjoyed my report, and I do hope it is helpful for your friend. I am afraid you are right -- I was already a true travel junkie, but now I am just in love with India. I'm not really sure why, but it certainly gets a hold of you and hangs onto your ankle like a puppy that won't let go! I can't wait to go back. In the meantime, I am watching all the Bollywood movies I can get my hands on -- just a few nights ago I watched Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, and found a tear rolling down my cheek for no other reason than because I was missing the place! Next time will be south and east for me -- I daydream about it all the time -- the route I will take and places I want to see -- I have to admit, it's been terrible for my work ethic!

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    Also add three films by Deepa Mehta that address the issues of women in India: Earth, Fire, Water. Don't know the dates.

    If you have a lot of time, "The Jewel in the Crown," an A & E production of Paul Scott's "Raj Quartet," is breathtakingly beautiful. Filmed in India with lots of outdoor shots of wonderful forts and palaces.

    There's a new HBO series with Michael Wood called "The Story of India." Haven't watched it yet, but it's in my Netflix queue.

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    Need some really quick help here. The driver you mention, Ramesh Meena, is employed by whom? We've been emailing someone with the same name who claims to own/drive for Four Wheels Drive India ( added an "s" to the other company's name). Think his name is not uncommon, so am now wondering if he also borrowing another's name as well as coat-tailing on a reputable company's name. Any idea how to check this out? He seems to offer the same kind of rate and "guarantee" that Four Wheel Drive India (without the "s") does. We're leaving in a couple of days, so any help would be much appreciated.

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    Ramesh Meena was our driver for most of our trip and he has since started his own company, using a very similar name to his former employer. I don't know that he is coat-tailing as much as using his former job as a model for starting his own business. He is an excellent driver. We had no problems with him at all. If you go with him you will be in very good hands.

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    Bonnieheather I hope that you will do a trip report and give info on the driver when you get back. I have just booked our trip to India for Jan 22nd, and will start the major research soon and look forward to hearing about any tips that you may have. Although it will be hard to beat the amazing report that Travelaw did.....But the more info the better.

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    Bonnieheather: I have just been in touch with Ramesh Meena by email. He assured me that he is not trying to coat-tail on his old boss's company. He points out that the company he used to work for is registered as Rajasthan Four Wheel Drive, and his new company is registered as Four Wheels Drive India -- similar, but not exactly the same -- he also says that he is looking for a better name for his company so people can find him -- and would LOVE to have some suggestions for a new/better name. If anyone has any ideas, post them here and I will pass them along.

    And yes, please do post a report when you get back. I really want to read how your trip went. I hope that you have a FABULOUS time!!!! If you use Ram, please send him our best wishes.

    live42day: You are too kind and I hope that you enjoy planning for your trip. It gets more and more exciting the more you work on it -- have fun! I love planning for trips -- sure do wish I was planning one right now . . .

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    Thanks for the advice to use Ramesh Meena of FourWheelsDriveIndia. He was a great driver, and we hope will prove to be a life long friend. His safe driving was the first thing that struck me. We have had other drivers in India, but none as cautious as he. I was also pleasantly surprised by his knowledge of the Uttaranchal, as he is from Jaipur. He gave us an excellent recommendation for a hotel in Ranikhet (Holm Farm Heritage Hotel). He was also gracious to all our Indian friends, and treated them with as much respect as he did us, his paying customers. In short, I can't say enough good things about him. Aside from the fact that he needs to change his business name, no complaints at all.

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    bonnieheather I am VERY happy you had a good trip with Ram. He indeed is an excellent driver. We have been in touch with him several times since we have been back and I would consider him a friend -- in fact I emailed him and asked how your trip was going and he responded that it was going well and that you are wonderful people -- in spite of Mr. bonnieheather's bad jokes. I hope his business thrives, because I believe he is a person of integrity. I am so looking forward to your trip report!!!

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    We, too, have just booked Ramesh for our Nov-Dec trip. He seems very eager and pleasant. I do hope we have a successful trip with him.

    From what I've read about Indian roads, leaving "four wheel drive" in the business title seems like a good idea.

    We've booked all our hotels and flights and now just to have to iron out a few more details, then we'll be ready to relax until it's time for the trip.

    Travelaw: thanks for all your encouragement! Have you got any suggestions about how to get guides for certain aspects of the trip?

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    Travelaw - I haven't finished reading your trip report yet, but wanted to comment that I am thoroughly enjoying it. I too felt that nobody really read through my report on Thailand, so I wanted to let you know that yours is appreciated.

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    Hi Pearl: I hope your trip with Ramesh goes as well as ours did -- and it sounds like bonnieheather also had a good trip with him. Re guides: I don't really have any *great* suggestions on how to hire one. I don't use them too, too much -- I rely on my guidebooks or do some research ahead of a visit (and then sometimes after I get back I read more if the place stuck as me really interesting) -- I don't like to get to bogged down with a ton of detail, though I will admit a good guide can really make a place sing. If I am super-organized (not too often), I will write down the names of guides that are recommended by other Fodors posters, or from other travel websites that I visit. Sometimes I ask the hotel to recommend someone and on occasion will find one at the entrance to a site where we think one could be helpful. Of course, that is pretty much hit or miss situation. We usually aren't afraid of firing the ones that miss (shoulda done that in Varanasi when we were there in December!). One of my biggest peeves is getting a guide who is advertised as speaking English -- and then finding out he/she really is not fluent and spending time trying to decipher what he/she is saying. In my early travel experiences -- others may feel this way too -- I think I tended to be over accepting and rather passive about bad service. Nowadays I know my holiday time is too valuable -- and indeed costs too much of my hard-earned money -- to waste time with a poor guide. Sorry I don't have any pearls (no pun intended!) of wisdom on the best way to get guides other than that.

    dgunbug: thanks so much for reading my report. I am glad you are enjoying it! I missed your report (have been super-bogged down with work and work-related travel for the past several months), so now that you have mentioned it, I will make a concerted effort to find it and read it. We had a great trip to Thailand a couple of years ago, so I am interested in hearing about your experiences. Also, I know how much work it is to sit and type up a report, so I don't want you to feel unappreciated!!! I wish I had time to read everyone's reports -- they are definitely better than the stuff I have to read every day!

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    Weather here at home is hot and humid. Plan to treat it as I would have treated a -40 day mid-winter in my youth - stay inside. Will start my travel report today and post some of it soon. As far as guides and drivers are concerned, we don't usually do this either, but operate on our own or use publice transport. In Asia, however, we have found that the language issue can be very important. That said, we have some of our best experiences with drivers with no English. If you can trust in serendipity and appreciate the "chaos" that travelaw speaks about, you can have a wonderful experience - just perhaps not the one you had planned.

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    travelaw: I noticed bonnieheather's rate from Ramesh is quite a bit lower that what his "reduced" price was to me. I'm waiting to hear from her what specific car Ramesh used. Do you remember the daily rate you were given, if you don't mind sharing that info?

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    I don't remember exactly what the rate was - either 2460 or 2640 rupees per day for a Toyota Innova. We were initially quoted in Euros, and asked for a quote in rupees instead, as we would be paying in cash. The exchange rate was favorable and it was off-season, so if there is a difference that could explain it. Also, if you want to pay by cc, the rate is probably higher.

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    hi trav: I've had the chance to read your report properly now, rather than as a brief moment of sanity in the midst of my own chaos. The thing that sticks in my mind is the Drive From Hell. You'll see why when I bung my tribal stories in here.

    Two things would have saved your life. Your own road map. A proper road map, not page 234 of Lonely Planet. [yup, I knew you'd expect the driver to have one - nooo]. Learn how to read that road map - fast. There's a psychology to the use of maps with Indian drivers. They can get offended, even when completely lost.

    Second: your OWN mobile phone... and the boss's phone number. That squeaky wheel gets oiled, very fast.

    Just those two things, used judiciously, would have sorted you out.

    Trav - what did you pay for the car/driver mileage/tax included, driver's allowance incl per day? Round figures.
    indiana? What was your guy quoting? I paid 3000 flat a day in deepest Gujarat... that was a biggo Toyota 4WD thing. Very comfy.

    Oh, and congratulations for getting to your 170th post!Balloons. Whistles.

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    travelaw, dogster, et al: Ram's boss quoted 3250/day ("no hidden charges"), then Ramesh came back with a special rate of 3100/day for a Toyota Innova. I had decided we were spending all our time in Rajasthan, so dropped Jaisalmer from our itinerary (I know, I know, but it's far west of everything else)and booked two nights in Amritsar. We'll fly into Jodhpur after Amritsar and thus will spend less time in Rajasthan.

    I asked how he wished to be paid and he said not to worry, but if I wished, I could put a "token" amount (unspecified) in his bank account and gave me his account number. I'd prefer PayPal or some such thing. How did you pay him --- daily, weekly, at the end?

    Good idea about the map! We always get one when we travel by car elsewhere.

    Thanks in advance for all the hand-holding!

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    That seems like a lot of money to me. I thought that India would be less expensive. We hired a car and driver for the day in Cambodia and and with a guide it was only $20 a day, mind you not 24 hours, but none the less. I guess I was under the impression that India was still fairly inexpensive.

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    live42day: this includes all fuel costs, fees, housing, and board for the driver, plus a 4.2% tax. Don't know where the driver goes at night --- probably the back of the car.

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    That may be, but his money, so I suppose he (and his company) can spend it as he likes. The point they emphasized was that the quote was all inclusive, no hidden charges, so that seems reasonable. He's gotten good reviews from others on this board.

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    Ran across our quote from Ramesh - 2640 per day all inclusive - off season rate. I should say that on a previous trip, we hired a driver at a lower rate, but it was not all inclusive. We paid the gas and road taxes, and the government tax additional to the daily rate. The tally in the end was in fact higher than the all-inclusive rate this time. I think actual costs that are included in this "all-inclusive" rate will depend on how much you drive, and where. The benefit to us was the ability to budget our costs ahead of time. The fact that you have the driver on call for 24 hours, comes in handier than you think. The flexibility to change plans was for us a great advantage. The amount included for "driver's costs" is minimal ($5 US)so hard to begrudge them disposing of the money however they wish. It's also not really enough to get him a decent place if he wants to sleep somewhere other than his car. Many hotels have free rooms specifically for the drivers, but their quality varies from acceptable to "not fit for a dog". You've probably paid a huge amount just to get to India. I would say, if you have at least 2 people traveling, want the flexibility of a car and driver and can afford a car at all, then the difference of $10-$15 per day is a small matter for you versus the driver. Your main concern should be a safe, courteous and knowledgeable person at the wheel.

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    Our tickets were paid for with miles on Continental, so this isn't that costly a trip. I do value having a car and driver, though, and one who seems to be a competent person. Dogster paid about 3000 INR for the same deal in Gujarat, so I guess this is about par. We finally sent a token payment by Western Union as it was too complicated to do so through our bank on the weekend.

    Thanks for all your good info and taking the time to find it for me!

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    Hi all,

    Sorry for the delay in responding ~ I was on the road sans computer.

    Hiya dog, I agree both a map and your own mobile phone are extremely helpful ~ in fact, we did have a map ~ only problem was that it wasn't detailed enough with local roads. We were WAY into the thicket. We also had our own mobile phone, which I had not programmed properly, so we weren't able to get service. (I did have the boss's number). Let me explain the phone problem: Unfortunately for Americans, our mobile phone system is a CDMA system, which means that most of the mobile phones sold in the USA only work in North America on our system. Most of the rest of the world uses GSM ~ some of the US mobile phone companies offer a couple of phone models that work on GSM -- only not mine. So, some years ago, I purchased a used GSM mobile phone on ebay that I could use while overseas. I bought a MOBAL sim card that works everywhere and plopped it into the back of the phone, which actually works great, because I only get charged for the phone when I use it and it gets billed directly to my AMEX card. The problem is, that you have to set the phone to the system that works in the country you are in ~ first the band width and then connect it with a local carrier. Anyway, when we were in Gujarati hell, I had not done that yet, and because I so rarely use the phone, I had forgotten how to do it. The directions, due to my stupidity, were packed in a place that I could not get to. I fiddled and fiddled with the phone ~ and remember it was pitch black out ~ with no luck ~ plus, to make a frustrating situation worse, the phone battery was low and then finally gave out. Really, really, stupid. Please people, learn from my stupidity!!!

    Regarding the car cost, I recall that I paid about 3200 per day (may have been a couple of hundred more or less depending on how it is calculated ~ we were provided a quote for the entire trip, not a daily rate), all inclusive -- tolls, taxes, fuel charge, driver's lodging and boarding and the 4.2% government services tax. That rate was for top of the peak season and an extended drive from Ahmedabad to Udaipur, up to Jaisalmer, over to Bikaner, down to Jaipur, to Agra, Jhansi, Orchha and Kajuraho. In other words, a long trip covering several weeks. We had 3 people in the car ~ don't know if that makes a difference ~ which was a Toyota Innova ~ very comfortable and lots of room for us and our luggage. We paid in cash when we arrived in Jaipur, to the owner of the company, Anil. I wanted to pay a deposit in advance, because I wanted to be sure that someone would show up, but they did not require me to do so, and I ended up not doing it, and they were there upon our arrival, as promised. I should also mention that I got quotes from 5 or 6 companies for the same itinerary and that was the best quote and most inclusive of all of them.

    I do want to make it clear that our driver, Ramesh, mentioned by folks above, was still working for Four Wheel Drive India at the time. The car fee was paid to Four Wheel Drive India. Ramesh had not yet started working on his own. I also want to make clear that Ramesh was not our driver during the hellish portion in Gujarat. We fired that driver, and Ramesh was our replacement driver. Now that I think back on it, I gave kudos to the company for fixing the situation, but really the kudos should all go to Ramesh. I think we just got really lucky that he turned out to be our replacement driver ~ and it was his competence and professionalism that extracted us and recovered us from the nightmare, it was nothing the company actually did, except to send him because he was the closest driver to where we were located.

    I have to go for now, but I want to add to this and will come back later today.

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    I am back. I just wanted to add that India is not as cheap as some other countries when it comes to the tourist industry. You definitely pay for what you get there. Also, live42day, hiring a car and driver for a longer trip rather than a day is a completely different animal. There are a lot more costs involved ~ such as room and board for the driver, tolls, and road and service taxes. The fee we payed was indeed all inclusive, however, we did tip the driver at the end of the trip, because we felt we received superior service from him. Truly, a good car/driver can make or break (see my Gujarati hell experience above) your trip. You should use someone with a good reputation. We had one horrible driver and one fantastic driver (Ramesh Meena) and our enjoyment was commensurate. The other thing I love about driving, which I may have already mentioned, is the flexibility that comes with it, and the ability to enjoy the countryside and to get off the usual tourist beaten track to see more of the real India.

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    I just wanted to bring this back up to top again, because it's about as good a trip report as you're ever going to read.

    I've just been checking a hotel recommendation in it and realised [again] what a great gift to us all this is. I believe travelaw is coming out of work-related seclusion soon - so welcome back trav, in advance.

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    Travelaw and all, Happy New Year from Linda in Hawaii. Travelaw you did what I dreamed of doing and never did. Shared your adventure's in India. My husband and I traveled India in Sept. and Oct. 2008. Seven weeks. We have so many memories as do you. Ramesh escorted us through India. The longest kilometers to date for him. And I just spoke with him this morning. Is it not wonderful he has struck out on his own? We met his old boss who invited us to his house for dinner. I stayed at the hotel and let Mike go with Ramesh. Why? Because by this time I had figured out the boss man's method of operation and just didn't want to keep company with him. Ramesh had to call him several times when he had booked us in less than desireable accomadations. Anyone reading this that is going to India please find Ramesh Meena and have a safe and wonderful time. He took such good care of us, we both were teary at the airport when it was time for goodbyes. I speak with him almost everyday via facebook. Our 25 year old daughter and friends will visit India in the future and I feel so at peace that this young man will be their guide. What comfort! And Travelaw, I have loved your entries. You should be signing the book! Aloha!

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    Another fan of Ram's! We just got back from a trip with him. He's such a wonderful young man and made our trip so much better. He really loves being his own boss. The man he worked for was not paying him much money and Ram does such a great job.

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    Va, va, va! -- what a shock to find my trip report up on top again -- thanks dogster! And yes, I am out of "cyber purdah" as Indiana has dubbed it -- at least for a few weeks. I am in Goa right now -- will be doing a 3-week trek through South India -- and I will try to post ocassionally while I am traveling, since I can't do it when I am "in theater." Linda -- so glad you are posting -- what a treat to hear from you! And Indiana, dear Indiana, thanks for writing to me!!! Dogster -- I have missed talking to you -- hope all is well my friend. Will try to post some tomorrow -- have to leave this internet spot right now as it is full of mosquitoes and they are after me -- time to crack open the deet! Happy New Year and LOVE to all!

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    Heya trav - I'm in Kathmandu in room 401 of the Hotel Courtyard in Thamel. As you know the wifi here is crap so this is brief. That's what I was looking up on your report. So, I follow in your footsteps. What a good choice! Very eccentric and interesting. I have been 'meeting the guests'.

    Welcome back. Relax in Goa. Life is fine, this end. It's been weird tho' in between. A true Dogster saga of oddity. I'll tell you later.

    Kathmandu is pretty odd, too.

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    Hi there, wonderful trip report and gorgeous photos. While looking at your photosI noticed at some point you went on a houseboat in Kerala - did you post a trip report? I have a couple of questions - how did you get there? Did you fly?
    How long were you on the boat? I am looking to go in October - do you know if that is good time weahterwise?
    Also what is the cost of the boat? I have had a hard time finding information. Any help you can give me would be greatly appreciated!!!

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    Thanks for linking the report Ram! Dean, we had prearranged a houseboat through a company who ended up shafting us (I think their web link is in the report)-- they were not on the pier as had been pre-arranged when we arrived. Fortunately we hadn't pre-paid. After getting out some annoyance and frustration at the situation (I had somewhat of a temper tantrum when I found out we were stood up), we ended up finding a houseboat rental place and hired one on the spot. It worked out fine. We paid 8000 Rs for a two-bedroom, two-level boat for an overnight cruise, including meals. It wasn't the fanciest of boats, but was quite nice and we enjoyed it. BTW, we drove there from Ft. Cochin by private car and driver (yay Ram!). While we just did an overnight on the boat, I think I would have preferred two nights. I don't know if October is good weather-wise, so hopefully some other Fodorites can answer that question for you. Happy trip planning!

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    From somewhere strange:
    I have no idea what bookmarking means or why people have the need to do it but if it means that this splendid trip report resurfaces everything is fine by me. It's a great relief to have some balance back in this forum.

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    Hey dogster, I too have always wondered about the Fodors bookmarking custom - why not just bookmark privately on your own computer? But it got me to read trav's stellar report, so it was a good move. I have paged you about Ahilya Fort on another thread - please answer.

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    Adding something to a thread, even if only Bk, adds it to the list of "Topics You Commented On" in your profile. If you're short of time, or have been off the site for a while, you can check your profile to see what's happened to threads you're interested in. I usually check my profile first, and only look at the individual forums later in the day.

    BTW dogster, where are you now? Off the boat?

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    I think people mention that they are bookmarking to indicate they've enjoyed a report and find it helpful. I rather think it is a nice way of acknowledging the effort the original poster puts into writing a trip report.

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