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Bruce and Marija go to India

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Feb 24th, 2008, 07:24 PM
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Bruce and Marija go to India

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

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

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

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

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

Off we went to the nearby Park Hotel with assurances that the Imperial would pick us up as soon as we called in the morning. The Park Hotel lobby did not impress. Neither did our room. Bruce slept for a couple of hours, I lay awake wondering whether this was the beginning of a disastrous trip. At 7 we called the Imperial and their driver quickly whisked us to the Imperial where we were taken to a lovely suite with windows facing the garden. After a shower we had a great breakfast, wandered the hotel, walked down to the Cottage Emporium and then relaxed until our Delhi guide arrived.
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Feb 24th, 2008, 07:28 PM
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Heh, just what you need, isn't it? A drama when you arrive...

I'm enjoying this report already.
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Feb 24th, 2008, 07:54 PM
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More!
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Feb 24th, 2008, 08:48 PM
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craig also had problems there as i remember....for those prices nothing should go wrong....the french strike again..
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Feb 25th, 2008, 08:43 PM
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So did I on my first visit. Got a ground floor room overlooking the "contractor's lounge" where the workmen smoked, gossiped loudly and watered the flowers (in an organic method...) After 5 minutes, we asked for another and it took nearly two hours to get led to the new one. Luckily, we went to the lunch buffet for most of the two hours, rather than waiting in the room as instructed.
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Feb 29th, 2008, 03:30 PM
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We met our guide in the now crowded Imperial lobby which had not only tour groups assembling but also tables set up for displaying and selling handicrafts. Despite the large number of people milling about, our tour guides always seemed to recognize us. (We were told that they pass client descriptions from one to another to aid in identification.) We’re both tall and Bruce has a beard so that was probably enough to set us apart. Prior to arriving in India we didn’t know that we would have the same driver for many parts of the trip. Since we were usually flying between cities, I assumed we would be using different local drivers and guides at each of the destinations. In fact our driver was with us in Delhi and then picked us up from the train station in Agra, drove us to Jaipur, met us at the airport in Jodhpur and then stayed with us in Udaipur. He didn’t do the Varanasi/Khajuraho/Bandhavgarh and Jaisalmer segments.

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

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

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

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

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

Besides lowering cholesterol and blood pressure and preventing Alzheimers, the wine helped us fall quickly asleep.
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Feb 29th, 2008, 05:58 PM
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Marija, Really enjoying your report. It's bringing back nice memories of our trip in February.
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Feb 29th, 2008, 06:08 PM
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enjoying your tale...i would have sacked that guide quite quickly...i hope you reported him to your agency...he should also have know about the closing and the prayer times...
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Feb 29th, 2008, 09:45 PM
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Sorry about the guide, but you seem to have done fine on your own. India is a fantastic experience isn't it?

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

Looking forward to more.
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Mar 1st, 2008, 06:06 PM
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If I hadn't heard that he suffered an untimely death, I would ask you if your guide was Mr Mohan, our own Delhi guide from Hell!

Great report. Keep it coming!
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Mar 3rd, 2008, 05:46 PM
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After a great buffet breakfast at the Imperial (we even drank the juice), we set off for the continuation of our Delhi tour. We decided to be more assertive today about what we wanted to do. Although we were going to see the forts in Agra, Jaipur and Jodhpur, Bruce wanted to see the Red Fort in Delhi and the astrolabes in the Mumtaz Mahal Museum in the fort. That was our first stop. I have to admit I wasn’t at all sure that I‘d be particularly interested in all of the forts that we were going to see on this trip. I mistakenly thought they would be old fortifications like those we’ve seen in Europe. Fortunately I was wrong again. The forts are so much more--they were the center of activity for large numbers of people. Although there are defensive components, the forts contain incredibly beautiful rooms where rulers held public audiences, private audiences, and galas, where they sequestered concubines, prayed, and engaged in all sorts of other regal activities. I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to spend a large part of the trip feigning interest in cannon remnants!

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

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

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

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

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

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

As we were finishing dinner we were joined by the sales manager of the Imperial. We had asked our travel agent whether we would have to pay for the night when we didn’t stay at the Imperial and he said he would discuss it with the hotel and let us know. The sales manager came to tell us that they would not comp us the night we were booted out. I had read that it was customary for a hotel to pay for the substitute lodgings and not charge for the night spent elsewhere, especially when it wasn’t a comparable hotel. We discussed this much too long with the sales manager not changing his position. There came a point when further discussion was pointless so we just gave it up. Life’s too short to get worked up about such details.
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Mar 3rd, 2008, 08:55 PM
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i would followup with a letter to the hotel general manager....you should have been given something more than a dinner at spice route...

how was the dinner....we found our dinner there to only be so so...
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Mar 4th, 2008, 04:58 AM
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Bob, you liked the Spice Route:

http://www.fodors.com/forums/threads...7&tid=35093579

The Imperial also upgraded us to an outside suite.
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Mar 4th, 2008, 06:48 AM
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I am enjoying your report. Our reservation at the Imperial was also not honored due to the unscheduled presence of some government official. We also stayed at the Park one night before being upgraded to a suite and being comped at the Spice Route. We did not ask nor were we given a refund for the first night.

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

I think the biggest problem with any wines, Indian or otherwise is that they don't pair well with Indian food. I stick to beer - Kingfisher is very acceptable.
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Mar 4th, 2008, 08:30 AM
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you are so right...i get those two mixed up...sorry...dont get old!!
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Mar 4th, 2008, 07:20 PM
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We were dropped off early for our Jet Air flight to Varanasi (aka Benares, aka Kashi). Only passengers are allowed in the departure terminal so we had to fend for ourselves. The first problem was the large sign indicating that each passenger is allowed only one piece of carry-on. I had a purse and a computer while Bruce had a camera bag and a small bag of “essentials.” The first thought was to cram the extra bags into the luggage but the large number of people swirling around made opening and rearranging luggage an unappealing prospect. Before I could ponder the matter further our bags were being hoisted on a screening device by a porter. The procedure in all of the Indian airports we were in was the same: have the checked baggage screened before proceeding to the check-in counter; turn in the checked baggage and get a boarding card at the carrier’s check in counter; affix special tags to all carry-ons and then have those screened as you undergo a body check; have the special tag and your boarding pass stamped to indicate that you’ve passed inspection. Make sure the carry-on tag is stamped and doesn’t fall off since it is repeatedly checked. (The one carry-on rule was not enforced anywhere we went, though the signs were everywhere.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We had an excellent dinner at the hotel. All of the Taj hotels we stayed at had really good Indian food and it was an added bonus that the menus were not the same for all of the hotels but they incorporated regional specialties. There was entertainment taking place as well but we were much too focused on the fine food to pay much attention.
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Mar 5th, 2008, 05:27 AM
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Marija-I am enjoying your report. Having just returned from India, I am reliving part of the trip through your commentary. I had the same trouble as you regarding taking photographs. The streets are so crowded that it is impossible to see the good shot let alone stop and take it. We resorted to hiring rickshaws in most of the crowded places, and took our photos during the ride. They are sometimes not totally clear, but in many instances they are. And anyway, it is a remebrance I would not have had otherwise, because there was no better way to get that shot. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening ceremony at the Ganges. We rickshawed back to the main road instead of walking. I am glad we went to the Ganges the night we arrived in Varanasi because the next morning during our sunrise boat ride it was so foggy we could hardly see any thing.
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Mar 5th, 2008, 05:53 AM
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Hi Marija, I too am really enjoying your report!

I'm especially interest in your comments, and those of Shelley, regarding photography. Was it mainly the problem of being jostled in the crowded streets and being in a moving vehicle? Or was there a fear of having your camera equipment grabbed, and/or people not wanting their pictures taken?
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Mar 5th, 2008, 06:04 AM
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I'm surprised by the comments about taking photos. I don't remember having any problems doing so, and have way too many photos to prove it, lol!
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Mar 5th, 2008, 06:52 AM
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Our problem with taking photos was that we were so often in moving vehicles. When we were on foot we were hesitant to take photos of people without permission. Many people asked for 10 rupees for a photo-op. That's obviously not a problem but the next thing you know you have a large number of people wanting to get in on the action. We were never concerned about having equipment taken. We do have a LOT of photos of temples and forts!
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