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A Month in India

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Dec 5th, 2011, 10:16 AM
  #1
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A Month in India

First off, I want to thank everyone on the forum who helped me with this trip, and also everyone who takes the time to post their Trip Reports which are always invaluable.

We planned the trip ourselves, but worked with V.P. Singh at Legends and Palaces on all the details. They booked our hotels, trains, and flights, arranged for a car and driver, and provided tour guides for all the major sites. We couldn't have been more pleased -- we usually travel completely independently but really appreciated the extra help on this trip. Everything went smoothly (which is saying something in India!).

This was our first trip to India, and we took just over a month -- October 19th to November 23rd. Here is an overview of our trip:

Delhi -- 3 nights at Amarya Haveli (very highly recommended)
Overnight train to Varanasi
Varanasi -- 3 nights at Rashmi Guesthouse (recommended for excellent location and helpful staff)
Flight to Khajuraho
Khajuraho -- 2 nights at Hotel Harmony (recommended as excellent budget hotel)
Orchha -- 3 nights at Bundelkhand Resort (recommended for ambience)
Train to Agra
Agra -- 2 nights at Ray of Maya
Jaipur -- 3 nights at Arya Niwas
Bundi -- Nai Havlei/Braj Bhushan (recommended for beautiful interiors)
Bhainsrorgarh -- 2 nights at Bhainsrorgarh Fort (very highly recommended)
Udaipur -- 4 nights at Jagat Niwas (highly recommended)
Narlai -- 2 nights at Rawla Narlai (very highly recommended)
Jojawar -- 2 nights at Rawla Jojawar
Jodhpur -- 2 nights at Ratan Villas (highly recommended)
Flight to Delhi
Delhi -- 3 nights at Amarya Haveli (very highly recommended)
Flight home

Couple comments on the schedule. People wonder whether to do Varanasi at the beginning or the end of the trip. We were very glad that we did Varanasi early on when we had more stamina -- and after Varanasi, we were ready for anything!

Regarding the length of our trip -- we did start to run down towards the end. Three weeks might be enough for a first time visit.
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Dec 5th, 2011, 10:57 AM
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can't wait to read it all...

we enjoyed meeting you at ratan villas... it was one of the best places we stayed on our trip...
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Dec 5th, 2011, 11:07 AM
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Hi Bob,

We enjoyed meeting you and Karen! It was such a great coincidence to run into you. Totally agree about Ratan Villas.
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Dec 5th, 2011, 11:09 AM
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Welcome back! What did you do for 3 nights in Orchha?
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Dec 5th, 2011, 11:33 AM
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Delhi

Some people say that the acronym India stands for “I’ll never do it again.” And we can understand why they might feel this way. India is messy – crowded, dirty, and frenetic. But it is also vibrant, colorful, and so different from anywhere we have ever been. On the one hand, India is a modern society, but on the other, it seems as if things haven’t changed much in hundreds of years. In India, so many people still wear traditional clothes (all the time) and continue to follow ancient traditions. It’s like we are in some kind of a time warp, and we are loving it – it’s even wilder and more unexpected than we thought.

For this trip, we are using a Travel Company called “Legends and Palaces”. We will have a private tour with drivers and tour guides arranged by the owner, Mr. Singh. Mr. Singh had his contact waiting for us at the Delhi Airport after our 13 hour flight from Newark; Delhi airport is quite new and modern. Actually, we had three people waiting for us when we arrived: the spotter inside the airport, the assistant who met us as soon as we stepped outside, and our driver. Seems like a lot of individuals for two little travelers, but this is how they do it (everybody has his rice bowl, I guess). At least, we are being well-looked after by Mr. Singh.

We are staying at a lovely hotel in a very quiet residential neighborhood called “Amarya Haveli”. The place has French owners (I was smitten immediately), and it has exceptional amenities. We have a large room on a quiet side of the building, an outside patio with table and chairs, great food (including made to order omelets and crepes for breakfast!), and a staff that goes out of their way to be friendly and helpful.

We arrived late on the evening of the 21st in Delhi, the capital city of India, so we took it easy the next day to recover from the long flight. At least that was our plan. An artsy shopping village near some ancient temples was only a 20 minute walk away so we decided to stroll over. Who would ever guess how challenging a “short walk” could be.

We walked along a main road that ran near our hotel; it was congested beyond belief with vehicles such as: cars, busses, 3-wheeled motorcycle-like devices (like the tuk-tuks of Thailand), tricycles, and bicycles -- all of them jammed together and not a single one of them in their own lane. Sometimes, It was hard to decipher what was going on; and then to confuse the eye even further, Indians drive (are supposed to drive) on the left side of the road. It was total chaos out there.

We were also accosted by beggars everywhere. A little beggar girl walked up to us and motioned that she needed food, and then looked at us pathetically, as she rubbed her stomach in gestures of small circular motions, as tho she were starving. We watched some young entrepreneurs operate their clothes ironing business right there along the street under a tent-like covering supported by makeshift bamboo poles, and cracked up to see a barber set up under a tree with a single chair on a median strip – cutting hair as traffic whizzed blindly by. Talk about low overhead. All his “barber shop” had out there on that dirt patch alongside the busy highway was a stool, a mirror on a small table, a pair of scissors, and a towel conveniently draped over the low-slung electrical wires hanging above his head.

Our goal, the Hauz Khas Village, was worth the trouble, and actually our little jaunt was a great introduction to India. The walk itself was the best part, but the temples (and the locals hanging out there) were fascinating, and I got a taste of the fantastic shopping in store for me.

That night, Mr. Singh took us out to dinner where we got into some amazing discussions. We talked about the history of India, and the politics here, but we were most interested to learn more about the religions of India, and his religion as a Sikh. Since religion integrates itself so deeply into the Indian life and economy, we thought it important to understand some of the basics.

Mr. Singh wears an immaculately folded turban over his head at all times in public, and with his bearded face, he can be instantly spotted from a long distance away. Later, we found out that many of these turbans are merely glorified hats, and can be slipped on already pre-folded. Sikhs are immediately recognizable because all the men wear the recognizable sleek turban. The Sikhs are an offshoot of the Hindus, and were originally formed as a group of warriors to fight the Muslims. Today, they are a totally separate religion with a more open outlook than the Hindus.

A couple other interesting tidbits: Hinduism is one religion that you cannot convert to – you must be born a Hindu or have a family history of having been Hindu at one time. The caste system and dowries are now illegal in India although both continue in some forms. He told us that marrying outside your caste is possible but hardly ever done. In theory, the Untouchables (the lowest caste) have the same opportunities as anyone else, but the economic reality is that a higher caste child is much more likely to get a good education, and have the career he chooses, rather than the one he would be forced to otherwise accept.

The following day, Mr. Singh along with our driver Anil took us out to see the sights of Delhi. We began our tour in Old Delhi on the main shopping street called “Chandni Chowk”. Now this was the India we had come to see. We took a rickshaw ride and our heads were spinning around trying to take in all the frenetic and strange new sights. The street was a menagerie of small ramshackle shops, most with goods or deliveries heaped out on the sidewalks: nuts, spices, material to sew saris, posters of Hindu gods, woks with strange foods a-cooking, etc. Overhead electrical wiring was a rats-nest of code violations, and tracing any one wire to its source or destination would be a magic trick for Houdini.

The sidewalks were teeming with shoppers (Hindu women in flashy- colored saris), carpenters and painters (squatting on the corner waiting for work), deliveries arriving via bicycle (we saw one cyclist carrying 2 huge Sanyo 50-inch (?) TV boxes, some crates stacked quite high in carts pulled by oxen, plus several delivery men carrying about 50 boxes of shoes on their heads! (You can’t make this stuff up.) And all this activity was whirling around a street clogged with more people and vehicles of all types than you can possibly imagine. We were worn out just trying to take it all in (as you are probably exhausted just reading about it LOL)

Other highlights included: New Delhi which has a totally different feel and look to it; that’s because this is British Delhi with the President’s Palace, government buildings (where monkeys break in and destroy documents – no kidding, this is a serious problem), and the India Gate – a huge structure (like an oversized Arc de Triomphe) which was built to impress the Indians with the might of the British Empire.

And a visit to a Sikh Temple – we had to enter barefooted, and I had to cover my head with a scarf, but other than that, we could wander all around and take pictures anywhere we liked. This was quite an unusual experience surrounded by men wearing turbans accompanied by the strangest guttural-sounding hymns played to a bongo beat. And yet, it still had a mystical feeling to it.

On our last day in Delhi, we visited Qtub Minar, home of the first mosque erected in India and an incredibly beautiful 12th c. tower 73 m. high -- another attempt to impress the subjugated, this time built by the conquering Muslims. The tower’s 5 Babel-like stories soar into the sky decorated in graceful Persian writings and encircled by several almost frilly balconies.

The site also holds a strange iron pillar that is even older than the tower and has scientists baffled as to how ancient technology could have produced iron so pure that it has never rusted in over 2,000 years. The technology to prevent rusting did not exist 2000 years ago; or did it?

This stop also gave us a chance to observe a number of Muslims, men starkly identifiable by white tunics, pants and skull caps, and the women they accompanied, always wearing full-length black burkas. Who knows how these women can stand to be totally shrouded in black garb which would only serve to amplify the heat by nature of its heat-absorbing color. Here in India, you can sure tell a lot about a person just by their clothing.

Our next stop was one of our favorites: Gandhi Smriti (the Ghandi memorial). This site includes a museum filled with photos, descriptions of Gandhi’s life, and many profound quotes from this amazing man. He lived here during the last 144 days of his life, and his room is just as he left it: sparsely furnished with a mattress on the floor, a small table, and his spinning machine. His walking stick leans against the wall with two pairs of sandals. A glass display case shows his meager possessions at the time of his death: eyeglasses, a watch, and a few pieces of silverware.

Outside, a monument commemorates his last steps on a pathway with raised footprints that leads to the place where he was murdered. The site is a fitting tribute -- simple but powerfully moving.

We left Delhi on an overnight train to Varanasi, and I will cover that part of the trip in our Varanasi report. But, I wanted to leave you with this incredible event at the New Delhi Train station. Our driver pulled into the parking lot, and a man in a red shirt ran over to get our bags. He placed a coiled rope-like cloth on his head which seemed odd to us, but what happened next defies description.

He grabbed my 30 lb. L.L. Bean bag and flipped it up on his head. Then with an assist from our tour guide Dilip, the porter added my husband’s 38 lb. L.L. Bean on top of my bag! Yes, with almost 70 pounds of unbalanced baggage on his head, this “porter” scooted across the parking lot so quickly towards the train station that we had to chase after him, just to keep up with his pace. He walked up (and down) 2 stories of steps, and delivered our bags to the inside of our sleeping car without ever dropping a single bag. We were stunned, to say the least. My husband kept saying, “This is impossible.” Our guide Dilip just smiled and said, “In India, all things are possible!”
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Dec 5th, 2011, 11:54 AM
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Marija -- We had a very relaxed stay in Orchha -- it's a nice town, and it was a good place for some down time (we are Slow Travel types). Let's see, we arrived In Orchha late on the first day, so we did nothing other than check out the grounds of the Bundelkhand and eat dinner.

The next day we did a half-day tour of the Palaces -- really enjoyed the stunning arichitecture -- and also saw the chattries. Spent the afternoon relaxing and taking a swim in the pool. We had an excellent meal at the Betwa Retreat Restaurant -- great Aloo Mutter.

On the second day, we made a half-day trip out to a small village called Aajadbura, an example of a government town with government-provided housing in an attempt to help the rural poor. We also spent some time at the market in town and in an internet cafe (took awhile since the server was up and down). And we got to see the chattries at sunset from the other side of the river -- beautiful.

You could certainly do Orchha in 2 nights, but for us, it was a nice respite.
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Dec 5th, 2011, 12:21 PM
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Good start - your report on Delhi sounds very much like our visit there on our first trip to India - except for the porter who carried your bags on his head...
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Dec 5th, 2011, 01:49 PM
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keep it coming..
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Dec 5th, 2011, 03:14 PM
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That bags on the head routine is incredible. What really scared me is that the guy also grabbed my carryon with a computer and our cameras. He didn't drop anything but then I couldn't get a photo either. Thanks for writing about your trip. (Sorry about the Orchha question. I didn't realize you were continuing.)
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Dec 5th, 2011, 03:27 PM
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What a great start. I'm glad you enjoyed the Bundelkhand Resort. While the grounds were lovely, we were turned off by the mothballs in the sink and the musty smell in the room. Our AC hardly worked and we decided to leave after one night.

Can't wait to read more.
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Dec 5th, 2011, 04:08 PM
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dgunbug -- The mothballs in the sink were kind of disgusting -- not sure what the deal is with that, but we came across it somewhere else also. My husband had some problems with the Bundelkhand bathroom in general, but at least our A/C worked well.
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Dec 5th, 2011, 04:30 PM
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Varanasi: Holy City of Chaos

Last time we left you, we were boarding the overnight train from Delhi to Varanasi. We wanted to book a first class cabin, possibly even one for just us, but we ended up with the next class down in a shared, open compartment (no door, just a curtain separating us from the aisle) with a young Indian couple. And, we had the upper berths which required a gymnastic climb that rewarded us with a thinly padded bunk bed and a tiny sleeping space in which to maneuver. I got almost no sleep in this uncomfortable setting, and my husband was too damn tired to care. It may be time to give up the overnight train idea, at least in third world countries.

However, in the morning, we had a great conversation with the Indian couple on the other side of the main aisle that helped to offset the discomfort. Of course, the gent was an engineer like my husband, so this lead to instant bonding between the two. Spending some time with local people was the main reason we wanted to take the train.

By the way, practically everyone speaks English here. The accents sometimes make it hard to decipher, but it is English. In fact, my husband has been unable to learn much Hindi since nobody speaks it to us. He asked a waiter at our last hotel how to say something in Hindi, and the man was silent for a moment and then said, “I have been working here for six years and always speaking English that now I forget my Hindi!” Yes, even a Hindi speaking Indian couldn’t provide an answer for us, as he’d forgotten how to say it.

Our handler was waiting for us at the train station in Varanasi (Varanasi is inexplicably called Benares here in India), and he immediately took off at a remarkable pace through the train station with us in tow. Boy, do these Indians move fast! We stumbled along behind terrified of losing him in the crowds.

We are staying at the Rashmi Guesthouse in the Old City. We will talk more about the traffic, crowds etc. later, but the Old City makes Delhi’s busy shopping street Chandni Chowk (that we talked about in the last report) look like a walk in the park. Our hotel is located on a precipice directly overlooking the Ganges, which places us right in the middle of the action. The room is tiny, but the bed is big and comfortable, and the air conditioning is powerful (but it is so loud that I feels as if I am sleeping on the assembly line of some heavy machinery factory!). The hotel also has an excellent rooftop restaurant where we ate breakfast every morning and also had dinner twice.

By the way, the air conditioning in each hotel room in this country does more than just the obvious cooling; it is great protection from the marauding mosquitoes that will inevitably swoop down on you at night and have a feast. It is good to keep the a/c in operation all night for protection against the flying insects that want a bite out of you.

Varanasi is one of the oldest inhabited cities on earth, and believe me, in many ways not much has changed since its inception. It is considered India’s holiest city, a place that all Hindus hope to see before they die. In fact, many come here with the hope that they will die here. The city has a population of 3 million people with an added influx of 25,000 pilgrims and 1,000 foreign tourists per day.

On our first night, we met our Varanasi guide who called himself “Singh”, and he walked us down the steep stone steps, called “ghats” to the Ganges, the most holy river. By the way, this river is horribly polluted – our Lonely Planet guidebook said to avoid getting even a sprinkle on us! At first, we thought Singh was a real nonstarter – initially, he was not much of a communicator. But my husband worked his magic, and soon Singh was sharing all kinds of cynical insights and philosophy. We really came to appreciate his unabashed frankness and his dry sense of humor.

The plan for this evening was to take a wooden boat ride out on the waters of the Ganges, and then attend the celebration of the 7 Brahmin priests called “Ganga Aarti”. For some reason, Singh chose an older man to row our decrepit boat – this guy must be the worst rower on the Ganges, can’t tell you how many other boats he bumped into (or nearly collided with). We really thought we might be taking an unintended dip in the Ganges ourselves!

We rode down to the main cremation ghat called “Manikarnika” where the flames of the cremations along the river’s edge flared in the darkness. Singh explained that the body is burned as soon after death as possible. Family members and friends maintain a vigil on the steps for the 3-½ hrs. (roughly) that it takes for the cremation to be completed.

The process is simple: the body is draped in colorful white & gold material and placed on a stack of wood. Another layer of wood is placed on the top of the body and then they add ghee (clarified butter) to cover the body, and make it burn well. The composition of the wood is very important – sandalwood is a key component since it masks the smell of the burning flesh. Afterwards, the ashes are dumped into the Ganges. Singh told us that so much wood was being used for cremations, the countryside is slowly becoming deforested.

Although most of the bodies cremated here are people from Varanasi, some have their bodies shipped here just to be disposed of in this auspicious place. Sickly and dying people often come here and stay in guesthouses just waiting to die.

Singh pointed out a man standing in the Ganges with water up to his waist in front of the cremation ghat. The man was holding a basket of wet ashes that he was sifting thru, looking for something. Singh said that the man’s wife had probably died and he was searching through her ashes to retrieve valuables; i.e., the jewel that she would have worn in her nose, her toe ring, and/or other piercings. The line between the pious and the practical is very thin here.

Singh also told us that wives no longer jump on their husband’s funeral pyres – in fact, it is a crime to do so. Singh said that, in the past, most of the wives did not go voluntarily to their fiery demise, but were pushed onto the pyre by family members (who probably did not want to have to support a surviving widow), and who actually blamed the wife for their husband’s death. (Don’t you love the way it is always the woman’s fault?)

Being a woman in India can still be dangerous in spite of attempts to be more enlightened. I have been reading the English language newspaper “The Hindustan Times,” a daily news rag about life in India. A one-paragraph article described the death of a woman in one of the villages. She was a married woman who had eloped with a man of the Untouchable Caste. As the article states: “Her neighbors beat her to death, hung her body from a tree, and burnt her.” The article made no mention of any arrests or charges to be made.

After the cremation ghat, we watched the nightly “ganga aarti” ceremony on the largest ghat, one with a large platform area perfect for the performance. Seven young Brahmin priests waved around flaming candelabras (what is it with these people and fire?) welcoming the god Shiva, while a chorus of the faithful danced and maintained a chanting rhythm in the background.

The next morning, we rejoined Singh on the ghats for a morning boat ride to see the sun rise on the Ganges. This was an even better experience than the ride on the river the night before. We had high hopes for a younger, more able rower, but Singh is a loyal guy and soon we were bumping our way up the river with the worst rower on the Ganges once again – the same old man we had last night!

The ghats were overflowing with the faithful preparing to greet the sun. Varanasi faces toward the east by design so that the rising sun can purify the people of the city each day. Women wade into the waters fully dressed while the men strip down to just a loin cloth (and sometimes nothing at all). Some people dive in while others use a cup to pour the river water over their heads.

People also come to the river for morning bathing; we observed one old woman industriously brushing her teeth with her finger. The characters along the river are simply mind-boggling: thousands descending into the waters, cross-legged people meditating on the steps, religious types smearing themselves with ashes as they greet the day, Brahmin priests sitting in front of the temples protected by large, mushroom-like umbrellas, and laundry boys washing clothes in the filthy water. (We are definitely sticking with hand washing in our hotel sink while we are here.)

My husband spotted one of the coolest things – boys throwing strings out into the river as if they were casting a line for fishing (We knew that couldn’t be it because God knows nothing could live in this fetid water!) Turns out, the string has a magnet on the end, and the boys are “fishing” for the steel coins that the pilgrims toss into the Ganges for good luck. As my husband says, “Even the Hindus are capitalists at heart!”

And the noise from the ghats – this is not some somber, respectful affair. The air clatters with an incredible cacophony of racket. Every pilgrim who enters one of the temples along the ghats rings a bell, believing that the vibration of the bell will send their wish to the gods. (Singh said the gods must be very busy trying to sort out which of all these wishes to honor!) At any rate, bells clang non-stop from every direction.

Soon the sun rises like a perfect red ball across the hazy, smoggy expanse of the Ganges, and the people of Varanasi proceed on their merry way to do the chores of daily life. And tomorrow, this whole rigmarole will repeat itself as it has day after day for thousands of years.

We retreated to our hotel to eat breakfast (and to try to process this whole overwhelming assault on our senses). Then, Singh took us on a city tour. A walk thru the dark, narrow alleyways of the Old City is just as mesmerizing as the ghats. This is where residents live and work in dank hovels made of stone. Shops offer all kinds of trinkets including small statues of Shiva and other Hindu deities – as Singh sarcastically says, “Gods for sale.”

Everything is dark and dirty – you have to watch where you step at all times because the sacred cows roam freely through here and leave their deposits everywhere. And you also have to listen for the motorcycles that careen through streets that are only wide enough for a couple of pedestrians.
The main shopping street is even crazier with a mass of humanity like none we have ever seen.

It just so happens that we are here in Varanasi on the infamous Indian holiday called “Diwali”, the festival of lights. It is also one of the biggest shopping days of the year. The street is packed with Hindu women in their finest silk garments and holiday saris, haggard pilgrims dressed in sackcloth leaning on wooden walking staffs looking like Old Testament prophets (it feels like the set of a Hollywood Biblical epic movie, but this is REAL), and beggars of all description, some with hideous deformities.

As we crossed the main street, a leper with bulbous lumps all over her face and neck startles me by grabbing my arm and begging for some money. Meanwhile, another beggar lady with an infant child suckling on her breast puts her hand out to my husband for money, and utters something in Hindi in a most pathetic way. We are heartbroken for these indigent, but the government requests that you give nothing to the beggars because it will only incite more begging.

We literally dive into our waiting vehicle, a classic Hindustan model called the Ambassador, and drive away from the craziness of the Old City. We visit one of the famous universities – Singh says, “Varanasi is about learning and burning.” And then we drive to the Durga Temple, a blood red temple where animal sacrifices were performed not long ago (now banned). The temple honors Durga, the consort of Shiva.

Hindus worship hundreds of gods and each one has dozens of names (Shiva is known by 1008 alternate names) and is recognized by specific accoutrements making it absurdly confusing. Just to give you a taste: Shiva carries a trident, rides on a bull and sits on a tiger skin to get re-energized by the tiger’s power (Singh says it’s like recharging a cell phone!). Hinduism seems to be a remarkably flexible religion. According to Singh, Hinduism is a very personal religion with no hard and fast rules – you decide which parts of it you want to follow (or not).

Diwali is sort of like Christmas and New Year’s Eve rolled into one. It is the biggest celebration on the Indian calendar. On the night before Diwali, firecrackers were exploding all over the city. On Diwali day, everything is decorated with orange marigolds (our hotel lobby was covered with them) and small clay pots filled with oil to provide a small flickering light in every doorway. Our hotel had no “live” clay pots – instead they had a string of miniature Christmas-like lights sitting in plastic pots. Modern technology! On the night of Diwali, the sky was filled with fireworks going off all over the city.

Singh described another aspect of Diwali. He said people make a wish for wealth on Diwali and many spend the holiday gambling for that wealth, some even end up bankrupted. In fact, the Hindu word for bankrupt is diwala! So, the Hindu people often say that “Diwali turns to diwala”.

There are so many simple issues in this country that make daily life more difficult than it has to be. This is a society that thrives on tips for survival. Everybody wants to be tipped for services rendered, and even for services not rendered (it seems). Problem is, from our prospective, there is a fine line between “extra services rendered”, and “just doing your job.” We have come to the conclusion, that after many days in India, we still don’t know squat about who gets tipped and who doesn’t.

When you stay at a hotel, everyone seems to want to be your friend; and, when you leave the hotel, you can just bet that everybody who even smiled at you will be standing around conveniently available to be handed some money. Everyone seems to have their hands out even when they do nothing. In one instance, my husband failed to tip an old villager man who just happened to walk up to us (who we still feel did not deserve to be tipped), and he became irate as we exited his airspace; he walked with us saying stuff in Hindi that we did not understand, but his body language was clearly hostile and his less than friendly demeanor spoke volumes. So, who do you tip, as well as how much? It’s really something we need to explore, and perhaps when this trip is done, we can give you a better ‘tip’ on tips. Or not.

Many of our friends were leery about us making this trip. One of them sent us this comment (that we absolutely love), regarding our last report. He said, “I think you could visit hell and make it sound like heaven.” I guess it’s all a matter of perspective!
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Dec 5th, 2011, 05:23 PM
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Outstanding report, Magster. Love the cultural observations and the description in general. So...if you had to edit your trip down to three weeks, what would you have left out?
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Dec 5th, 2011, 06:02 PM
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crosscheck -- That's the tough part! I really enjoyed all of it, but if I had to pare it down, I would probably fly to Varanasi (instead of taking the overnight train), shave a day off Jaipur, Orchha, and Udaipur, and eliminate Jojawar.
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Dec 5th, 2011, 10:55 PM
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Love your report. We were at Rashmi Guest house last year and it is the best spot in Varanasi as far as I can tell.
I know what you mean about tipping. It blew my budget all to hell, I did not expect to have to tip as many as I did. We also stayed at Jagat Niwas in Udaipur, another favorite of ours.
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Dec 6th, 2011, 01:24 AM
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Oh this is such a great report!! thank you!!

LOL abut why Singh chose the old man to row the old boat. I'm surprised he didnt say it is his cousin..or uncle..or grandfather
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Dec 6th, 2011, 01:27 AM
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Mothballs in sinks..i saw them in nearly every place in Kerala. I think they are to prevent ants coming up , out of the sinks. They are in even the"best"places!
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Dec 6th, 2011, 04:03 AM
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Still loving this excellent report and your incitefulness. .
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Dec 6th, 2011, 05:15 AM
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CaliNurse -- I am sure you are right about the old man rower -- gotta be a relative!! And I like your theory about the mothballs being used to keep out the ants. I had an awful feeling (that I had to work to suppress) that it might be to keep out snakes - ugh!
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Dec 6th, 2011, 05:43 AM
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Join Date: May 2009
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Khajuraho – Making Friends among the Erotic Temples

We left Varanasi on a short (45 min.) Jet Airways flight. Of course, the airport was confusing but luckily our handler, Hareesh, gave my husband a good tutorial on airport procedure in this country. Interestingly enough, the Hindu security system forms 2 separate lines, one for the guys, and one for the girls (women get a curtained “booth” for their pat down). Yep, just like back when you were still in grade school, they keep the sexes apart. The flight however, was comfortable and pleasant.

The town of Khajuraho with a population of about 20,000 is a refreshing change from Varanasi. Altho a busy place too, it is by comparison a sleepy, small town out in rural India -- sellers and touts are still waiting for us every time we step out of the hotel, but they give up quickly because we have now learned a few choice Hindi words, like “nay-hee, soonia” which means “no, excuse me”, or, if you want to be a little more emphatic, “pagal”, which means “get lost”.

We settled into our new place, a nice cheapie hotel with surprisingly large rooms called the Hotel Harmony. (Even in this budget hotel, all the floors are made of the most gorgeous marble and granite.) Then, we headed for Khajuraho’s reason for being: the ancient temples with their Kama Sutra-inspired carvings.

Our latest guide, Anu is a University-educated art historian with a good sense of humor. We began at the Western Group of temples and immediately saw cone-shaped temples that reminded us of Angkor Wat, the famous temples of Cambodia. Anu agreed with the comparison but proudly told us that these temples are 300 hundred years older than Angkor! Just like Angkor, these temples were totally covered by the jungle vegetation and were only rediscovered accidentally in the mid-1800’s by a Brit named T.S. Burt doing a geographically survey in the area.

The temples were built during a time of religious upheaval when newer religions like Buddhism were competing with Hinduism. The new religions were highly spiritual, seeking a pure existence free of material things. This was confusing to the Hindus who are pretty much good time boys and girls who thoroughly enjoy the physical world. The Hindu book known as the “Kama Sutra” was written specifically to glorify sex as an essential part of life and an integral part of the Hindu religion. These temples are covered with carvings of Kama Sutra positions for the purpose of celebrating the physical side of love.

Anu happily pointed out the interesting sex positions and associated contortions, as well as the erotic highlights of these statuettes, often supplying his own names to the positions, like one he called “The Quickie.” He also warned us with a wink not to “try this at home.” Beyond the obvious eroticism, the sculptures are amazingly lifelike with a grace and movement way ahead of its time (and more skilled than the carvings at Angkor). Some of these sculptures could rival Michelangelo’s works for their detailed knowledge of human anatomy.

My favorite was a beautiful sculpture of a woman holding up her foot to remove a thorn in her heel – the accurate depiction of her twisted form was truly remarkable. (I would describe my husband’s favorite sculpture, but this trip report is G-ated. Let’s just say it involved some serious gymnastic ability and fell into the “do not try this at home” category.)

But even more than a portrayal of interesting sexual positions, these statues provide a kind of Rosetta stone which storyboards facets of life at that time (circa 1000 AD), depicting musical instruments, domesticated animals as well as mythical creatures, gods and goddesses, warriors and their weapons, daily dress and hairdos, and the simple tools of the day.

Next, we visited the Eastern Group of temples which were built by a group called the Jains. The Jains are an unusual religious group unique to India, one of those newer religions like Buddhism. Jainism began about 2600 years ago, and it exists only here and has never spread to any other country.

These folks are known for their strict regimentation, their repudiation of the material world, and for an extreme respect for all forms of life. The most devout Jain monks even gave up wearing clothing – they would walk around naked wearing only a mask over their mouths to prevent accidentally inhaling (and thus killing) an insect. The sculptures here are not erotic, but focus on everyday life. They include many sculptures that look just like the Buddha except that the Jain statues have a diamond carved in the middle of the chest.

That night, we attended a delightful light-hearted dance performance at the Kandariya Art & Culture Center. These events tend to be very touristy, but like tonight, sometimes they can be quite good. This was a spirited performance of traditional Indian folk dances by an energetic and earnest group of svelte young dancers. The costumes were extremely colorful, and the lively music has clearly inspired Bollywood!

The following day we rode to Raneh Falls in an open jeep. The falls were a bit disappointing because much of the water had been diverted for irrigation, but the variety of rock (granite, jasper, basalt, quartz) contrasted with the green water of the lake created a picturesque spot.

We also went on “safari” through the surrounding jungle where we saw peacocks (India’s national bird), Languor monkeys, antelopes, and spotted deer. We had hoped to see crocodiles, but no luck there. (My poor husband still hasn’t recovered from the disappointment of not seeing crocodiles in the wild when we were in the Daintree Rainforest in Australia 6 years ago. Looks like India will not be much better.)

What made the jaunt in the jeep most fun was having an unobstructed view of the villages that we passed through as we traveled to and from the falls. We even stopped at one village home where a young woman churned goat’s milk for us providing a demo of how to make butter, and then showed us her primitive outside kitchen where she sat on the dirt floor and tended to a few pots that were brewing unknown foods over a small open fire.

As we drove by, we got a terrific view of village life and lots of friendly waves and “hallos” from the locals. By the way, you have to picture my husband standing up in the back of this jeep, holding onto the roll bar, taking pictures, and waving to the locals – it was like “return of the Maharajah!”

Back in town, we decided to brave the touts and go for a walk. I found some great souvenirs and my husband did some fun dickering with the street vendors. Then, we ran into a young Hindu couple we had met yesterday at the temples. Jyote and Uddam Das were very sweet young newlyweds – we think they are enamored of all things American and that’s why they really took a liking to us. They wanted to buy us something to eat from one of the vendors along the dusty main drag, but I got nauseous just looking at the street food (and the cooking methods and utensils used).

We finally settled on a fresh juice stand. I still had visions of spending the night on the toilet dancing through myr head, but we just couldn’t insult these nice people who only wanted to be friendly. Luckily, we had no repercussions from the juice.

One odd thing was when Jyote and Uddam showed us all the jewelry they were wearing and told us the price they paid for each piece. I had read that rather than deposit money in the bank, Indians will invest in gold jewelry, and wear it. These kids were obviously quite proud of their gold acquisitions, so I guess this whole gold discussion was like taking a look at their stock portfolio!

We exchanged email addresses with our new friends, and for some reason, they give us a ton of contact information: 3 or 4 email addresses each, along with an assortment of cell phone numbers. They seemed stunned when we told them we don’t have a cell phone.

A word about the food: Stomach ailments are quite common for travelers in India, and we have to be very careful. We obviously cannot drink the water, so we use bottled water for almost everything including brushing our teeth. We also clean all of our silverware using beer, hot tea, or some strong booze from the flask of 100 proof whiskey that my husband brought along just for this purpose.

We are also eating mostly vegetarian food with some chicken. My husband loves the spicy hot foods and soups, and the fabulous unleavened breads, but it could create some embarrassing situations if you consume too much of their spices. I am a big fan of paneer, a solid cottage cheese that is cut into cubical chunks (looks like tofu) and served with various vegetable sauces.

For the most part, we have been eating at our hotels and that works out well – their food is pretty safe and convenient too. In Varanasi, we ate dinner at a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant called The Brown Bread restaurant. What an experience. The restaurant was in the Old City, so it looked like a real dump on the outside – a typical Varanasi hovel-type place carved from stone with a narrow stairway to the 2nd floor.

The restaurant was designed with raised up stone cubicles where patrons sat on a thin mattress at a low table using cushions to support their backs – sort of “sultan” style. The ambience was further enhanced by an old man with flowing white hair playing the sitar alongside a bongo player. I thought it was romantic (like eating in the Kasbah), and I could easily picture the expats of the 60’s hanging out in a place like this. My husband thought the seating horribly uncomfortable and impractical, and was very leery of the overall food sanitation. Surprisingly, the food was fabulous, and nobody had repercussions.

Another challenge here in India has to do with the plumbing in the bathrooms. Hotel Harmony is a good example. As my husband says, “Nobody seems to know how to make a decent bathroom in this country!” (Of course, he has said this about Europe, and just about every country we have ever visited!)

The Hotel Harmony bathtub shower kluge of spigots and water delivery devices looked like a control panel on some kind of primitive Flash Gordon space craft. It had five knobs with which to play around with to somehow make the water flow, two faucets, and one showerhead. In order to take a shower, you had to turn on the two lower knobs, one for hot and one for cold, which caused water to flow out of the two faucets. Once you had what seemed like a good balance between hot and cold water, you moved on to the upper dials which activated the showerhead, adjusting these dials between hot and cold also.

By the way, this whole operation is conducted as you stand perched on a ledge on the side of the bathtub (to avoid being either scalded or frozen when the water comes on suddenly). And of course, after you finish your shower, you have to reverse the whole process. Additionally, there are all sorts of unexplained water valves all around the bathroom that don’t seem to do anything. And lots of spigots protruding from the walls at ankle height that are easy to trip on if you are not watching your step. Thank God, my husband, the engineer, sorted this all out – otherwise I would have been taking a sponge bath at the sink LOL!
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