INDIA: "A Pleasant Surprise"

Old Apr 30th, 2015, 06:33 PM
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INDIA: "A Pleasant Surprise"

In early April, we spent 12 days, mostly in Rajasthan, trying to capture the best of India in a short time without tourist burnout. I’ve separately reviewed our very capable tour operator, Castle & KIng, but now I’ll give an idea of what we did. We had just come off a 16 night Seabourn cruise that disembarked in Mumbai, and I had a husband who was reluctant to tour India due to bad press, so I planned to see the highlights as efficiently as possible. Our itinerary included Jodhpur 2 nts (Raas Haveli); Devi Garh 1 nt; Udaipur 1nt (Fateh Prakash); Shahpura Bagh (2nts); Jaipur 2nts (Samode Haveli); Agra 1 nt (Oberoi Amarvilas) and New Delhi 2 nts (Leela Palace)

I’d asked C& K for a driver to take us from the ship to the Mumbai airport, and, while not a bargain, it was still less that what the ship charged. While the old colonial buildings that we passed looked interesting, the miles of horrible shacks we passed on the way to the airport looked dreadful Caught a Jet Airways to Jodhpur, an ueventful and good flight that just arrived 30 minutes late. After we collected our luggage, a rep from C&K welcomed us and accompanied us, along with Krishna, our driver for the rest of the trip, to Raas Haveli and facilitated our check-in process.

Raas Haveli is very cool. Set in the old town at the foot of the Mehrangarh Fort that looms above it, it’s actually a modern take on an old style. The exterior is red sandstone to blend with the cliffs and Fort with a top floor painted indigo. The black and white rooms were great with black marble floors and a balcony that looked across the stunning pool with the Fort as backdrop.

We met our guide, Raghu, at 4:30, a very personable and handsome young man. We set off on a walking tour of the old town, through Sarder Market and climbed the old British Clock Tower for views. He helped me buy some lac bangles and MG Spice Co for a pack of Indian spices. Market was very interesting and not overwhelming...men cobbling shoes, providing dental service, fixing tires, fabric shops, copper cooking untensil shop, veggies and fruits, and of course, cows wandering at will. He walked us to Pal Haveli to show us where we’d be eating dinner the next night and saw a man-made lake and an old step well. Nice and easy introduction to the city, but I was a bit disappointed because, this being the Blue City, I thought most of the buildings in the old city would be indigo while only a few were. Apparently, the blue buildings were on the other side of the fort where the Brahmins used to live.

We ate dinner in the hotel tonight at Darikhana on a lovely terrace with the Fort lit spectacularly behind it. Another tip for the Tourism Board...don’t shut off the lights at 9am! Too early...I missed my chance to take photos thinking I could do it after dinner. Dinner began with a yogurt, tamarind, pomegranite starter and papadum (crackers), had an Indian Sauvignon Blanc by Grover Winery, Butter Chicken and Dal Makhani (made from black lentils) and Garlic Naan bread followed by dark chocolate ice cream. I discovered I HAD to eat ice cream, if possible, after every Indian dinner.

Slept very well despite the raucous Call to Prayer at 5:45 close by and went back to sleep until I got out at 7:30a trying to catch some “blue” photographs of an archway nearby...much quieter then, just me and some cows and Brahmin bulls eating garbage.
Back for a lovely alfresco breakfast seated next to the pool with a great buffet and eggs or pancakes made to order. At 9a, Krishna & Raghu came to get us for our tour. They are both delightful and glad to hear that Bob from Fodors recommended them. “Very Happy Man” was Krishna’s succinct words.

First we drove into the countryside hills to see Jaswant Thada, cenotaphs of the old rulers of Jodhpur. This is the Royal Cremation area where the maharajahs were cremated and then beautiful marble monuments were built above the sites. Here, Raghu spent time explaining the Hindu practice of cremation...the meaning behind it and the practical aspects...very interesting. Lovely gardens and a man-made lake, used by family members to purify themselves following the cremation, complete the scene. Inside the main mausoleum framed photographs of Maharajah Jaswent Singh and his son were displayed while a turbaned flute player played evocative music. Quite lovely.

Now a quick drive to Mehrangarh Fort, 400 feet above the city, where an elevator whisked us to the top. From here, you could look down and see the blue buildings of the Brahmin section. Then we explored the many palaces...can’t go into the detail but they were ornately carved and decorated...the Sheesh Mahal, the mirror palace, Phool Mahal, the flower palace...all gorgeous. An excellent museum on site showcasing the Royal Howdahs (elephant chairs), cribs, turbans, palanquins, textiles, and weapons. We were also introduced to the art of Miniature Painting where paints ground from natural minerals like lapis lazuli, malachite and turquoise were applied with a brush with a single squirrel hair...all augmented with gold and silver bits. Exquisite examples on display.

When leaving, you pass through an excellent museum shop where a man who’s family has created these painting for generations is selling his wares....and we got talked into buying two paintings...one of maharani’s arriving by elephants and a matching opposite one of maharjahs arriving by elephant. No idea if the price is good or not...buy it if you like it.

By now, it’s very hot so went back to the hotel for lunch and hoped to jump in the pool, but internet tasks interfered. Later in the afternoon Raghu came back for another venture into Sarder Market. I had earlier asked him if he knew an economical way for me to ship home a package of dressy clothing/shoes from the cruise that I didn’t want to lug around. He told me we’d visit the textile section of the market, wholesalers who ship to Hermes, Anthropology, Donna Karan, etc. So, we walk past open shops with throngs of colorfully dressed women in their saris sitting on the floor buying fabrics and enter a “warehouse” store, a man leads up the stairs and invites us to sit down, and starts laying out bedspreads, etc. Oh no! I hate shopping like this! And, I had no need of bedspreads or tablecloths...or so I thought. They ranged from simple cotton eyelet to silk and pashimas in beautiful paisleys. We get the whole spiel about how much this would cost in the US or Paris...shown photos of Richard Gere visiting the place, and see magazine articles featuring the shop and owners, Jain Enterprises. Then, he tells me the prices in US...and they are surprisingly good. Suddenly, I’m interested, and most surprising, my husband is interested. I want a blue silk patchwork type and he wants a lightweight pashima (the more expensive option)...now coming off a cruise, I don’t have that much room in my suitcases. He tells me what his shipping costs to the US are...again very reasonable. So, decide to take both...then he brings out pashima shawls...beautiful, lightweight and only $30 US. I take 3 and I’ve been kicking myself ever since for not getting more. But, I didn’t want to buy a lot at the first place we looked at and expected that Jaipur would be a better shopping town. Oh well. So, to ship a queen size pashima and blue silk bedspread (that I’m going to use as a tablecloth) 3 shawls, and my package of 2 pairs of shoes and a long formal and short dress (that was 8 pounds alone), the shipping charge was $45, which I thought was cheap. I told them the date range I wanted it delived (since we were going to be gone another 3 weeks) and it arrived the day after I came home.

For dinner we walked to Pal Haveli and ate dinner on their highest rooftop at “Indique”, with a great view of illuminated Mehrangarh Fort (until 9p) when we had to console ourselves with dining by the light of a full moon. Food was excellent and very reasonable...Chicken tikka, an eggplant dish, biryani with vegetables, naan bread and Kingfisher Beer. Felt safe walking back and forth at night.

Originally, I thought perhaps I should skip Jodhpur as it was a bit out of the way, but it was a good way to ease into India. And, the Mehranghar Fort was one of our favorites, as was staying at the Raas Haveli. Most importantly, after spending two nights in Jodhpur, my husband said he was “pleasantly surprised by India.”

Next: Devi Garh
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Old Apr 30th, 2015, 06:57 PM
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Ah, yes. We were seduced by that same store in Jodhpur. But the movie star who had just visited was different. I'm enjoying reading about your trip. Thanks.
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Old May 1st, 2015, 02:26 AM
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Enjoying your trip report! Brings back lots of memories from our trip 2 years ago.

I'm sure it must be the same Raghu who we had take us through the Bishnoi villages. He was one of our favorite guides in India. We also enjoyed dinner at Indique -- great food, great atmosphere.
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Old May 1st, 2015, 07:09 AM
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Enjoying your report and so pleased that your husband came around to enjoying India as mine did.
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Old May 1st, 2015, 07:57 AM
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So, your husband was converted?
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Old May 1st, 2015, 03:34 PM
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I'm not sure I'd use the term converted. He loved the food, he loved talking to our guides, Krishna and others about philosophy and what's life like in India, liked the historic sites, but he's uncomfortable with the lack of hygiene, the insane traffic and came to the conclusion that there's no way that India will become 2nd in world power based on the lack of infrastructure, good education for the masses, and basic lack of things working properly. Going through the crazy airport security system in New Delhi didn't help his perceptions!

Let me put it another way….we won't be coming back for a second visit…once was enough.
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Old May 1st, 2015, 04:11 PM
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Well, I can't disagree with his conclusions, and I'd certainly add dirt and trash. But I still it's worth going back, although I'm sufficiently spooked by the gang rapes to reconsider going solo again.
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Old May 1st, 2015, 04:19 PM
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We, too, went to the same store. If you don't buy, you must find your way out by yourself...we all buy.
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Old May 1st, 2015, 04:52 PM
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Krishna made our trip very special, so glad you had the same experience. Wonderful that you spent 2 nights at Shapura Bagh. If there was anything I could change about our trip in February, it would be adding a night there.
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Old May 1st, 2015, 05:31 PM
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thursdaysd, you are a true traveler to master India solo…I commend you.
Elainee….thanks for letting me feel better…they are masters at selling.
FromDC; he is really a gently soul…feel bad that he's away from his little son (and wife) for so long but he's providing them a good living. We did enjoy our respite at Shahpura Bagh…they're amazing people.
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Old May 2nd, 2015, 03:19 AM
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India is not on my list, but your title intrigued me and I'm so glad I stopped by to read. Enjoying your trip report immensely. Looking forward to more!
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Old May 2nd, 2015, 10:22 AM
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nice start to your thread, barefoot.

I too have been put-off by the dreadful poverty and violence, but still toy with the idea of going, especially after we enjoyed Sri Lanka so much.

keep it coming please.
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Old May 2nd, 2015, 11:44 AM
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My husband swore for years that he would never travel to India, but after reading him excerpts from the fodors forum, especially those written by dogster, he relented. We both considered India to be our most foreign and interesting travel destination, so much so that we intend to return despite the fact that I contracted a good case of deli belly on my last day.
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Old May 2nd, 2015, 04:07 PM
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dgunbug, I remembered your Dehli belly episode and avoided Haagen Daz ice cream in India, although that probably wasn't the culprit. : -)
Miraculously, we both avoided this ailment but succumbed to the common cold.
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Old May 2nd, 2015, 04:11 PM
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Barefoot - the ice cream was not the culprit. That was the only food I could stomach by the time we got to the airport. Was already feeling sick.
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Old May 2nd, 2015, 05:04 PM
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After reading another Fodorites glowing description of Devi Garh, I had to stay there. I’m sorry my memory is failing me to give proper credit. My initial plan was to stay two nights so that we could tour Ranakapur on the way there from Jodhpur and also visit Delwara village. However, I was informed that a wedding had been booked after our initial booking, so could only stay one night. In retrospect, I would have cancelled this and spent the two nights in Udaipur instead of one, but I REALLY wanted to stay at DeviGarh.

Krishna picked us up at 8am since I wanted to get there by 1p to have lunch. It seemed like a very long drive (5 hours-he estimated correctly) without a good place for a bathroom stop. Finally, DH could hold out no longer and became a local urinating against a wall along the highway (should’ ve snapped a photo). I held out until a gas station but Krishna apologised that it wasn’t up to cleanliness standards for women..it flushed, it was private and not against a public wall so I was OK with it.

I was starting to feel very poorly on the drive as I hadn’t slept well due to the start of a sore throat....sh....t! Krishna opened up on this leg and talked nonstop for hours and I felt bed that I wasn’t up to reciprocating. DH eventually started listening to his book “Shantaram” that we’d downloaded on his I-phone....recommend this for long travels as it’s at 48 hrs and he loved it. Also, headphones help drown out the incessant beeping.
Another suggestion for a long drive, blow up your plane neck pillow...it helped alot. We also recommended to Arvind that he put a suction-cup window shade in the car to help mitigate the heat from the sun.

So, about 1p we pull up to Devi Garh and what an imposing site! A palace sitting high upon a rocky edificace...somewhere I read it described it as a plain white layer cake with fancy frosting. The first several floors were indeed plain but the upper floors were carved intricate latticework in the stone. As you walk up to the reception, they shower you with rose petals from above...my first thought was....oh no, a bird!...

Our room was magical..one of the Palace Suites, # 28, all white marble floors with a low bed looking through arches out to a balcony with carved arches ovelooking a panorama of the Aravelli Range. Gorgeous! The village of Delwara was just below and we could watch people on their rooftops or tending their gardens. In the middle of the room was a sitting area with a divan and also a huge bathroom all done in marble with a huge marble tub. Simply stunning.

Went down to lunch in an all white, rather modern dining room with red accents. Too hot to sit outside on the terrace. Service was VERY slow but they made me a special tea when I asked if they had any tea for a sore throat...fresh ginger, fresh mint, lemon and honey. It did make me feel better for a bit. However, I’m feeling punky and DH doesn’t feel so great after the drive either, so we both wanted to lay down for awhile.

I’m determined to at least jump in their beautiful pool which I do for a quick swim.
I REALLY wanted to go on the village tour at 5p, but he doesn’t and I’m not really up for it, so we compromise and ask for the HeritageWalk at 4 to see the rest of the old castle/fort. However, no one is available at the scheduled time as a group from the wedding as arrived and they have to do the rose petal welcome. So. the Assistant Mgr comes to give us our tour and, perhaps, its an abbreviated one. We get to see the special rooms that you can book for a private dinner, and a view of the female and male living quarters. Then, he says we’ll finish at the bar for drinks (which sounded complementary but it’s not) and to see the sunset (which is OK), so he leaves us there to recline on cushions and enjoy our sunset drinks. This afternoon has been extremely windy and hot. I’m hoping I’m up for a morning tour of the village because that was one of the main reasons to come.

Dinner is at first disappointing. When we arrive, all the outdoor terrace tables are taken and we’re seated inside an air-conditioned empty room. I’m not happy. DH spots that a couple has just left a corner outside table and asks to be moved, which we are. It’s a perfect warm night, with a full moon, and we have a perfect dinner of a lamb dish, cauliflower dish, biryani (too much) and the perect ending, chocolate ice cream. Perfect sleep, great breakfast out on the terrace except I’m feeling worse and eat very little, but DH had eggs made to order. On to Udaipur.

Next: Udaipur
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Old May 4th, 2015, 06:17 PM
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UDAIPUR: Fateh Prakash Hotel

I had hoped to do the Delwara Village Walk in the morning before Krishna got us at 10a. But, since I was feeling worse, I had to skip it which was quite disappointing. I’d asked Krishna if he could take us to see Eklingji, the ancient Hindu temple built in 734 AD, about 15 minutes from DeviGarh. We arrived about 10:20am and joined the throngs of worshipers waiting to enter at 10:30. You basically get in line and inch your way through the large and impressive complex. It’s dedicated to Lord Shiva and features a 50’ black marble image along with many smaller temples dedicated to various Gods and Goddesses. It reminded me of the Angkor Wat type of architecture with many intricate stone carvings...very beautiful. If you plan to visit this, be sure to check the erratic opening times.

Arrived in Udaipur around noon to very hot and very windy conditions and checked into the Fateh Prakash Hotel, part of the City Palace Complex. We were met by a rep from C&K and Virenda Singh, our local guide. Our room had been upgraded to a suite and was quite a stunning room, decorated in old palace style and facing the Lake Palace Hotel. Only negative was the locked doors to an outside terrace because of “the birds and the bees”. The welcoming fruit bowl and cookies would serve as lunch later.

Virenda walked us over to start our tour of the City Palace Museum, a huge complex of two palaces filled with lavishly decorated rooms. The mosaics, stained glass and tiles were lovely, especially the peacock entrances, and there were many fine examples of miniature paintings. Lovely views of Lake Pichola and the Lake Palace and Jag Mandir from the upper floor. Touring required climbing a lot of narrow steps, which was difficult as I’m feeling weaker and achier and just not into hearing all the history of the maharanas (only in Udaipur are they called maharana instead of maharaja). They’re proud of the fact that only in Udaipur did they denounce intermarrying with the Mughals and resisted the Mughal forces for as long as they could. My favorite story was when the Maharana attached a fake trunk to his horse’s head so that the Mughal’s charging elephants would stop and think it was a baby elephant. At this point, Virenda asked if we should continue our city walk and visit the Jagdish Temple now or rest and continue later. I thankfully said “rest”.

However, when I awoke after my nap, I discovered I had a 100 degree fever so we called to cancel the walk and our 5p sunset boat ride, much to my dismay. (That cell phone came in handy) I just needed more sleep and I was hoping I could make the dance performance that night. Luckily, I did rally and Virenda walked us to Bagore-ki-Haveli Museum where a 7p performance called “Dharohar” would feature music, folk dancing and a marionnette. There was a long line when we arrived and he walked us past it and found seats for us as he went to purchase tickets....very thankful for a local tour guide now. It was an excellent and colorful show, and I was glad not to miss it.

From here, Virenda walked us through the streets and across the river to Amet Haveli, and along the way, we passed festivities at a small temple where a young boy ran out to him and we got to meet his lovely wife and adorable son who were celebrating Hanuman’s birthday. At Ambrai, the restaurant, he got us the best corner table looking across the lake to the City Palace complex and sideways to the Lake Palace, both lit up beautifully at night...and augmented by that full moon. The food was excellent and a reasonable cost. After dinner, we caught a tuk-tuk to take us back to the main Palace gate and enjoyed walking through the Palace gardens, and the buildings were now lit up fuschia pink.

Breakfast was served on a top terrace overlooking the Lake Palace Hotel, but today it’s very hazy and so the scenery isn’t the best. Virenda puts us on a 11am boat tour of Lake Pichola...again, he gets the front seat in the boat. Being so hazy, the boat ride was just OK but we got to see some of the beautiful buildings from the waterfront and watch teenagers dive into the waters to swim. We disembark at Jag Mandir, where we have 15 minutes to walk around before getting back on the boat. You could’ve stayed longer and had a very expensive drink at the bar, but we wanted to get going for our ride to Shahpura.

Being ill, I shortchanged Udaipur and didn’t get a chance to walk the streets or shop. In hindsight, I probably should’ve skipped DeviGarh and spent two nights here, but I did love a countryside stop & DeviGarh.

Next: Shahpura Bagh
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Old May 5th, 2015, 07:26 AM
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Catching up and eagerly following along. I think I might have been the person responsible for your Devi Garh detour. Sorry you couldn't have stayed longer, but glad you got a taste. I've been thinking about a return visit - ready to join the Jodhpur shopping club.
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Old May 5th, 2015, 08:36 AM
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crosscheck, it was you! I loved the trip report you wrote and your description of Devi Garh made it a must see….I really did want to be able to walk around the village, which looked so interesting from our perch, and meet and photograph the locals.

We don't plan to go back (a large part because we rarely go twice to a country since there are so many to see!) but I thought I could justify a flight there maybe during a Europe trip just to save money on prescription drugs! More on that later.
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Old May 7th, 2015, 02:28 PM
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SHAHPURA BAGH:

On the drive to Shahpura, the extremely hazy skies turn into threatening rain clouds. As we approach the village, it starts to rain and we see huge puddles in the road and that the Saturday market is under water. Wow! They must’ve had some heavy rains earlier in the day. A few days ago, I’d read in a local paper that several people had been killed in the Jaipur area from hail, and also many peacocks. Krishna confirmed that many farmers had been wiped out from the heavy rains and hail (resulting in several suicides) because this time of year the crops are in the drying out stage before harvest. The worst March rain in 48 years and very unusual since the monsoons don’t start until July.

Our rainy arrival at Shahpura is rather inauspicous. We find a huge tree branch blocking the road and several staff are moving it to allow us passage. Our “welcome” is quite brusque. A man takes us to our room, doesn’t introduce himself, and asks for our passports in a demanding and officious manner. He comes back with a registration form and grills us more than immigration did. He didn’t like my answer of “Dept. of State” for the question “where was your passport issued?” which is what it says in my passport. Kept insisting I had to tell him which city, which frankly, I don’t remember, but he accepted Washington DC. Then, he puts down another form with food items available to order and kind of demands we get snacks. So, I tell him one item and he tells me it’s not enough for us, I need to order another. DH and I exchange looks and I’m thinking, boy did I get this place wrong! Is this the owner? Our room is nice, but I was expecting better based on such positive reviews I’d read. I discover that these guest rooms are in a separate building from where you eat meals and where the family lives, and there’s only a small sitting room when you walk in the front door. I’m beginning to think I made a big mistake in booking two nights here as it’s raining and there’s nothing else to do.

Then, we meet Sat, one of the owners, and things start to look better. He’s a very tall and sociable man who tells us they’d just had a huge storm earlier that afternoon and at midnight with marble sized hail that had broken a glass table, brought down trees and made the pool area a mess with mud everywhere. We walk up to what normally is a lovely pool area, but today it’s cool and cloudy, and talk with him and his teenage daughter for awhile hearing the distinctive call of the many peacocks in the background. Now, Mr. Grumpy comes back, all friendly, and asks if we want to order drinks. Actually, I think I understand better his attitude when I read later that Shahpura employs local people and sometimes their service isn’t that polished.

At 7:30, which is when we were told on arrival dinner is served, we were met at our door and led by flashlight over to the main house, trying to avoid the huge puddles and mud along the way. At the house, we’re introduced to the other co-owners who are family members. We’re shown into a parlor with stuffed leopards and tigers and asked if we want to have a cocktail or go into dinner. Since, we’re the only people there, we go into a dining room for dinner and meet Maya, Sat’s wife, who’s the excellent chef. We’re served a cold tomato soup, then many courses including a Chicken Tikka, but both of us had a piece that was totally inedible (neck bone?), a delicious green gourd vegetable dish, a rice/vegetable dish, a kefte meatball dish, and refreshing butterscotch Kulfi for dessert. By the time we’re almost done eating, another couple had arrived and was chatting with Sat in the parlor. I’m not really comfortable with being the only couple in a dining room when I’d expected (from other reviews) more of a dinner party experience and the chance to talk with people from all over. Maybe it’s the off-season (it’s the day before Easter) and that’s why it’s empty. Again, with my cold progressing, I’m not in the best spirits anyway.

Easter dawns sunny and warmer, thank goodness. Have decided that today is a day of rest for us....reading and writing. We walk over to the main house for breakfast, which is served in a different room...in a long, narrow indoor terrace. Again, we’re the only table. We’re served yogurt with pomegranite seeds, pineapple, papaya, bananas and granola...then, scrambled eggs with bacon, french press coffee, biryani and potato puffs..all very good. Maya sits down with us and we have a lovely talk. She surprises me with a beautifully decorated Chocolate Easter Egg, filled with candies. On the way back to our room, one of the staff has set up an Art table with his miniature paintings, and we buy one painted on silk. Never knew I needed so many paintings.

We just sat outside on the terrace of our building in comfortable chairs all morning catching up with correspondence and lunch (fried veggies and lassi) was brought over for us. Then, made the big effort to go to the beautiful infinity pool area and lounged on the draped pool beds, walked around the grounds a bit and took photos. When I missed the Village tour in Delwara, I comforted myself with the thought that I’d be seeing a charming village here. But, because it was a Sunday there was no market, and I still wasn’t feeling well, so missed our second chance.

We did take advantage of their Sundowner Fort excursion at 5:30. We rode through the village to another one about a half hour away to ramble about an old family fort of theirs with lovely views down to the countryside. At sunset, we and a family from Spain, joined Sat on the ramparts for a glass of wine and a chance to witness thousands of bats emerging from a cave in the fort and taking to the skies.

When we returned to Shahpura, the owners and guests (now there were two other families with teens) all gathered around the pool in the dark having cocktails and appetizers. This is more like what I expected. After an hour, we walked over to the main house for dinner, but each group sat in different rooms.

Breakfast the next morning was served outside in the garden which was lovely and we again spent a long time talking with Maya. The two families who own Shahpura were very congenial and we were impressed with how much philanthropy they’ve done for the village. DH loved it here as we got a chance to relax in the countryside.

Next: JAIPUR
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