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Nov 28th, 2013, 05:10 PM
  #1
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Magical India

First of all, I want to thank all posters from whom I gleaned information for my India trip. I'd also like to thank our travel agent, Susan of Geringer Global Travel, who patiently answered all my questions and quelled all my pre-India jitters and fears. And thanks to Sita, our ground operator, for always being there. They were the best.

From October 3 through October 25 of this year, my friend Angela and I, Rita, travelled throughout India and to Nepal. We travelled to Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Varanasi, Kathmandu, Cochi, Alleppey, Marari Beach, and Mumbai. It was a bucket-list magical tour that I would do again IN A MINUTE. Of the hotels we stayed in two were adequate (Varanasi, Alleppey Houseboat), three were very good (Delhi, Agra, Kathmandu) and five were excellent (Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Cochi, Marari Beach). We only spent the day from 1:30 pm to 10:30 pm in Mumbai. I will comment on each of them in my trip report. Throughout the tour, we had a private driver and a private tour guide. This mode of travel seemed to be the best fit for us as we were able to change our itinerary on a dime and get personalized attention. After our tour to Costa Rica, which included 44 people!!!!, we knew we needed a different tour scenario.

Oct 3 - NYC/JFK to Delhi

An hour before we were scheduled to leave for the airport, my travel partner, Angela, calls me in a true panic that she can't find her phone and how will her grown kids contact her. After enlisting the cab driver waiting outside to help her look for it in the house, she found it . I knew from that point I had to be in charge of all the papers and passports.

So, after six exhaustive months of research, we set off to JFK on a beautiful clear day. The flight took off an hour late. Despite that, Air India seems to be well run airline. I am small so there was enough leg room for me. It did help that I had an aisle seat. We were served a choice of a vegetable curry dish, a chicken curry dish or a continental dish. We two omnivores decided that we would be vegetarians for the three weeks of our trip (that lasted five days). The vegetable curry was very good. We both popped Ambiens and slept for six solid hours. The Indian man behind a groggy Angela said to her in Hindi (and we figured it out through physical gestures) that he wanted her to put up her seat because he wanted to watch TV and it was too close. She was about to do it and I said, no, she paid a lot of money for that seat, and if she wants to leave it down she will. Angela agreed. There may have been a relative who translated to the man, but I was pretty groggy too so I'm not sure. No further comments from the man. We arrived in the beautiful newly renovated strangely uncrowded Delhi airport. The airport offers 45 minutes of complimentary wifi if you care to set it up. I couldn't be bothered because I was too excited to start my trip. Arrival and departure times and baggage carousel numbers were posted contrary to what some posters have reported.

By the way, the US has a lot to learn from India about airport security. As annoying as it was to get our belongings constantly searched and ourselves patted down, there was a definite feeling of security. In airports all over India people are not allowed to just go into airports. You need to show some sort of ticket (or a picture ID that you are a registered tour guide) to EVEN get through the entrance. Our Sita contact was there waiting for us. Our Sita tour guides and city contacts, were always on time, pleasant and accommodating.

We were directed to a comfortable Toyota Innova SUV. Out of the airport into the madness! While we were waiting at our first (and I swear the ONLY) traffic light in all of India, we saw tuk tuks, rickshaws, motorbikes, people, people, people, cows, dogs, and a white late-model Lamborghini. I want to smack myself that I didn't take a picture of that blatant contrast between wealth and poverty. Alam, our driver from Delhi through Udaipur, was the absolute best. He was a great driver, good-natured, and we always felt secure with him around.

Oct 4 - Delhi

The heart of Delhi, except Chandni Chowk (more on that), was much more lush than I expected. Our Sita contact checked us in at The Lalit, a nice, business-like hotel in the middle of the city. We had dinner in 24/7, the hotel's cafe. I had the most delicious mushroom risotto I have ever tasted IN MY LIFE -- bar none, and coffee - yuk. 10% service tax!! And 16% VAT (value added tax -- whatever that means -- for food). 20% tax on alcohol. It would be 11 days until we finally found our first cup of GOOD coffee ... in Nepal.

Because we got in kind of late, we decided to just scout around the hotel. There was a carpet seller in one of the shops upstairs at the Lalit. He was from Kashmir. He told us much about his culture -- Islam -- and his life. One of my favorite parts of this trip was talking with the people and getting to know them, their stories, and their opinions on whatever came up. I bought four handsewn pillow covers within 2 hours of our arrival ... highly unlike my normal MO. I was very tempted to buy a 3' x 4' "magic" carpet. I can see why they are called magic carpets … one way it looks one color, you give it a shake and lay it down again and it's a different color. Wild! But it was too expensive.

Here we are in our room around 9 p.m. overlooking the highway -- I counted 8 seconds -- no cars, no tuk tuks, no motorbikes, no people, no trucks, no animals. I guess Delhi closes down pretty early. We were pretty wiped out from the long plane ride, but we had work to do ... we carted pens, writing pads, Ziplocs and 5 pounds of candy across the Atlantic to India to give to the Bishnoi schoolchildren (more on that) and got to work putting the packets together. Then we slept like babies. Delhi tour tomorrow!
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Nov 29th, 2013, 03:49 AM
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Thanks Rita.

We're looking forward to the rest of your reports. We're off to India in February - for the second time (first trip in 2008)- this time going to Delhi, Varanasi and Kathmandu in Nepal - among other places. Fresh information from different eyes is always useful.

Paul & Ann (Brisbane, Australia)
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Nov 29th, 2013, 04:44 AM
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Nice start.
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Nov 29th, 2013, 06:46 AM
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Waiting to read more about your trip. Thanks for writing.
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Nov 29th, 2013, 11:55 AM
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Looking forward to more. Did you pick the hotels, or did the agency?
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Nov 29th, 2013, 06:17 PM
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Oct 5 - Delhi

Our Tour Guide for Delhi except Chandni Chowk was Gajandra, a wonderful, personable, knowledgeable young man. Sita called WII (When In India) tours to get us a woman tour guide, which I thought was very nice touch. Ritu, a lovely young woman, told us that she was a CPA who, after working in the corporate world for 10 years, decided to start When In India Tours with her sister. WII only does rickshaw/walking tours of Old Delhi. We waited for our rickshaw driver outside of Red Fort. That is where Old Delhi starts, and so it is a busy rickshaw hub. I recommend a rickshaw with WII Tours because Chandni Chowk is quite large and your rickshaw driver will wait while you hop on and off to see various temples and markets within the narrow lanes. I don't know if other rickshaw drivers do that because it is hard for any kind of driver to just stop in Old Delhi, as any kind of space, parking or otherwise, is premium real estate. I suspect, though, that if you paid him enough, he would wait for you as I didn't see any traffic rules adherence. Beeping was loud, but not as annoying as I have read ... and like anything else, you get used to it. I have a video if you care to "hear" it. I am from NYC so I may have a bit of immunity against traffic noise. I actually found it fascinating that pedestrians, rickshaws, motorbikes, cows, bicycles, tuk tuks and handdrawn carts can together navigate the narrow lanes of Old Delhi at all. I even saw a cow "backing up" so a motorbike could pass. Cars are not allowed because the lanes are too narrow. The cacophony of sights, sounds and smells was something I have never experienced. I took a picture of the miles of entangled electrical wires overhead … to show my husband. I can see why there are short power outages all over India every day. And this will continue until the infrastructure, including the electrical system, is upgraded. It will probably take many years. We stopped in one of the many spice markets. Why oh why did I not take a picture of the spice market!!!??? If you are sensitive to aromas and powders, bring a handkerchief, because even some of the locals were coughing. Ritu took us to one of the many spice shops. The shop owner was very knowledgeable. He told us that until recently people used to buy separate spices and mix them together themselves, but today many people just buy masala mixes instead of trying to concoct the mixes themselves -- for convenience and for consistency of the mixture. The shopkeeper was very proud to tell us that he is McCormick Spices' main provider. I bought Chai masala as a gift and saffron threads for myself. Don't forget to tip the rickshaw driver, they work so hard. Old Delhi is not for the faint-hearted, and I was very glad I used WII Tours for this segment of my trip.

Still with Ritu … our attention was directed to a gigantic wire bird sitting atop the "Charitys Bird Hospital." Ritu told us that at any given time there are 1200-1500 bird patients. Looks like the hospital runs on donations. I hope it is not "government" money because that could be used for the populace, instead of birds.

We walked a short distance to Jama Masjid, which is the world's largest outdoor mosque. For Western women, there was a small fee to rent a light colorful robe, although not sure why as my friend and I were only showing our hands and faces anyway. There was one shorts-wearing Western man that had to cover his legs with some type of sheet. No shoes or cameras allowed. They check your bags for even cellphones with cameras. So if you go with other people, take turns going in while the other holds your camera and shoes. I was not that impressed and would skip it if you are short on time. It was run down, and we were hot and tired from doing Chandni Chowk. View of Red Fort is very nice from Chandni Chowk. Ritu took us to a temple right inside Chandni Chowk. The 10-day festival Navratri started today, so there were more people than usual worshipping in the temple. We couldn't take pics of idols (don't worry we will get our share), but can photograph priests and architecture. Ritu told us that the temple provides meals and a place to rest for elderly people. There were quite a few people using this much-needed service. ALERT: I was told (after the fact) that the men taking money and giving out robes in Jama Masjid are fakes. They are very menacing if you decline, so you give. If you have more gumption than we did, you won't give.

Went for a late afternoon Nizzamuddin Basti Walk. The tour was led by an underprivileged Muslim youth. The tomb of 13th century Muslim Sufi Saint Nizzamuddin Auliya is there. The tomb itself is run down, and the residents are living illegally on this graveyard. It is dirty, dusty, full of flies and feces. Beggars all over, dirty dirty and not worth it. Although I did get a few good pictures.

We zipped past India Gate, a very large structure designed by Brit Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1921. You really just need to drive past it to get a good view. It is impressively large. Pink stone. Bigger than the arch in Washington Square, NYC.
We stopped at Qtub Minor, an impressively beautiful five-story minaret. It is very cool looking and was built by three different Muslim rulers over 150 years. The first three are red sandstone and the last two are marble and red sandstone. Different architecture and design can be seen in the stories because its construction spanned over more than a century. Very intricate sandstone carvings.

Oh by the way, this is where we first learned how the Brits (and in all fairness many other outsiders) plundered India. They took the 186-carat Crown Jewel diamond (which was not called the crown jewel at the time) and cut it down 105-carats to fit into the queen's crown!!! Throughout our travels through India, we were again and again told and shown how the Muslims and then the Brits took jewels and gold from the temples and monuments. I was seething every time I heard another plunder story. But the Indians themselves seem to be incredibly patient and accepting.

We drove past Presidential Palace, couldn't see much, but what we saw was beautiful, and the cleanest part of Delhi.

We had dinner in the Spice Route in Imperial which was beautiful, delicious, but seriously overpriced. Imperial Hotel is a sight to behold in a Western sort of way. Go to bed early to catch the train to Agra.
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Nov 29th, 2013, 06:21 PM
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thursdaysd: Our travel agent's India itineraries offered a choice of "luxury," "first class" or "economy" hotels. Hotel names were listed in each class. So I went to each hotel's website to see their rates and amenities, and searched out feedback from past patrons through various travel websites. After that we specifically told her what hotels we wanted.
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Nov 30th, 2013, 05:32 PM
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Oct 6 - Delhi/Agra

Wake up at 4:45a, grab a cold box breakfast from Lalit and off to train station to catch the 6:10a Shabtabdi Express to Agra. It departed on time. The train station was packed with people, mostly passengers, but the remainder beggars. You really have to steel up and don't make eye contact as soon as you spot them. Once you make eye contact, it is very difficult to get away from them. They will keep following you. It was a very big help that our tour guide spoke Hindi and made them scram. The first class train car was comfortable and air conditioned. They offered packaged cookies (which I ate) and coffee or tea (which I didn't). I opted for bottled water instead. Then bread with butter and jam. Then some kind of hot cereal. Then two potato coquette with coffee or tea. Then a lime juice cocktail. All for $6 and all in two hours!!! I didn't eat all of this. My NRI (non-resident Indian) friend in the US said one of the best ways to avoid Delhi Belly or the Jaipur Jitters is to NOT overeat. So we heeded her advice. We watched the sun rise as the countryside awoke. The scenery: lots of unfinished construction, people, people, people, a mile of shipping containers, many industrious independent plastics recycling entrepreneurs combing the sides of the train tracks for recyclables, empty shells of buildings and many many slums along the train tracks. And I hate to say it but garbage garbage everywhere.

Agra

Alam drove to Agra and met our train as well as our guide - Sanjeev. We drove to the massive Agra Fort. We enjoyed the history behind it. The inlaid marble was beautiful. After the fort, we checked into the very nice ITC Mughal. It is a beautiful hotel with gorgeous rooftop views of the Taj Mahal.

We were then taken on a walk through the market in Old Agra. I do not remember the name, but it was similar to Chandni Chowk, except it was more crowded, noisier and dirtier, which translate to "better" in my opinion. My friend and I loved that we were the ONLY Westerners in that market. Sanjeev said they are trying to build up the walking tours through this market. On our way to the market, we had to go over a bridge spanning the railroad tracks. There were many men sleeping on the floor, stray dogs, and many monkeys. One monkey went up to a sleeping man and stole his flip flop. The monkeys take everything that is not nailed down. Our guide woke him up to tell him, and the man went on a flip-flop toting monkey hunt. There was a monkey-pack fight brewing -- they were hissing and hooting and getting physical with each other and jumping around the width of the overpass. Sanjeev told us to just stay still until it past, which it did in a minute or two, but it was still frightening

We were then taken to a Makrana Marble factory. The marble factory workers are direct descendants of the marble inlay artisans of the Taj Mahal. Their careers run from 22 years of age (it takes until then to learn the trade and to develop the manual dexterity) to 46 (usually by that time they develop hand and shoulder ailments from the work and can no longer continue to do the exacting work that is required of this trade). The owner/manager was proud of the fact that he went to UC Berkeley in the 80's and told us about the marble. We saw a live demonstration, watched a short (interesting) film and were brought to sit down at a beautiful marble table which happened to be $7000. I'm guessing he thought we had enough money that we might possibly buy it ... WRONG! He showed us how to tell real red carnelian stone. It glows if you put a flashlight to it. Very cool. (On a subsequent day, I actually took my travel flashlight and put it on a piece I was considering buying…NOT carnelian!) I bought a small pretty marble jewel box for $45. Pricewise, it matters how many inlaid stones a product has. As you can see, for $45 mine did not have too many.

As part of our tour we had high-tea with a local family. It was awkward, boring, and the conversation was strained. We were glad to be out of there in half-hour.

As part of our Agra tour we had a Heritage walk through Kacchpura Village, we walked through a rustic village, took pictures of kids playing and walking home from school. The walk ended at Mehtab Bagh on the Yamuna River to see the sunset from the back of the Taj, very pretty, except not really sunset views of the Taj itself because the views of the Taj are from the Yamuna river in north and the front of the Taj in the south so you never really see the sun setting behind it or in front of the Taj. But it does change the color of the marble from white to a bluish tint. No matter -- it is still the most beautiful building I have ever seen. If you have a chance, read the writeup of Taj Mahal on Wikipedia … it's very interesting.

We had dinner at Peshawari Restaurant in ITC Mughal. We split a delicious dhal, naan and aloo with chai. My only issue was silly massive half-log tables, and I couldn't cross my leg.

Oct 7 - Agra-Jaipur

We woke early to go see the Taj Mahal at sunrise. The most beautiful building I have ever seen, yes, it's worth repeating. I had tears in eyes. And such a tribute to the love Shah Jahan had for his third wife, Mumtaz, who died giving birth to their 14th son. On her deathbed, she asked two things of her husband: one, that he build a tomb for her, and two that he never remarry. He did both, but we are told that he did have feminine comfort occasionally during the rest of his life. It is a long-standing myth that Shah Jahan's goal was to build an exact replica of the Taj Mahal in black marble for himself right next to the Taj Mahal. No matter, one of his sons deposed the Shah, and he never got to do that, myth or not. He was able to view the beautiful tribute to his wife from across the river until his death when he was entombed with her … what a love story!

Back to hotel for Breakfast at ITC Mughal (delicious). Then goodbye to Sanjeev.

On the way to Jaipur, there is a glorified ghost town, Fatephur Sikri. You can see the glory it once beheld, but now it is a deserted village. It was abandoned soon after it was built when the local wells dried up. But it is in very good shape considering it is almost 300 years old.

While we are driving on the highway, we noticed all the Indian trucks have writing on the back that says "Horn Please" or "Blow Horn." This is to alert a driver approaching from behind to honk in case they wish to pass. The problem is EVERYONE honks, so it is never ending. I found it fascinating though. Every Indian truck, small or large, is bedazzled with pompoms, paint, tinsel, and idols. Pretty much, if the truck has "All India Permit" written across the top, the Indian truck driver LIVES in his truck, so he decorates it however he wants. Indians generally like to "do up" stuff: their houses, their tuk tuks, their temples…so why not a truck!

After a small itinerary mixup (we weren't on the guest list and did not have our voucher), we had lunch in Laxmi Villas Palace, in Bharatpur. Our tour company straightened it out, and we were hungry so we ate there. But we should have skipped it because it was basically watered down slop, in an albeit very pretty rehabbed palace. Just a tourist mill with lots of large European groups.

On the road to Abhaneri, Alam stopped for petro and left us at this little rest stop/gift shop named Mahauh, not sure of spelling. We had chai tea and biscuits while we waited for him to come back from filling up. We bought a package of Hob Nobs, as a tribute to Maggie Smith in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. On the road again … we passed what seemed to be the marble and soapstone capital of the world, with a few miles of both in varying degrees of finishing. We passed a bustling little town called Sikandra. We slowed down and opened the window to take some pictures. So far throughout our time in India we had not had any comments about our appearance or "differentness." Well, this one turbaned old man yells out "I like it." And we all laughed.

Alam asked if we wanted to take pictures on the side of the road. There was a lot of activity because it was quitting time with people going back home, and shepherds bringing their animals back from pasture. There was this gorgeous baby boy about 2 years old. After getting the mother's permission, I crouched down to take a pic. Well the baby started crying hysterically. I felt sooo bad not even a piece of candy could calm him down.

One of the highlights of my trip was the Abhaneri Stepwell on the way to Jaipur. It was led by an underprivileged, but educated youth. We were lucky because they were having the Abhaneri Festival from October 5 to October 7, and the kids were home from school. The stepwell was built in the 8th century, as a water storage and filtration structure until it dried up. The depth, symmetry, and construction of the stepwell is a sight to behold, and the pictures we took did not portray is beauty. The Abhaneri Stepwell is said to be the deepest stepwell ever built. It is definitely worth a stop if you are going from Agra to Jaipur.

The road to Jaipur was well-maintained, and we stopped at the side of the road at a truck "lay bye," as they are called, to take care of business. It was equipped with both Western toilets, stinky, but Western., and Indian toilets. I chose the Western one, but regret that I did not even once try an Indian toilet. Another smack-me-in-the-head moment. Almost to Jaipur…
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Dec 2nd, 2013, 10:17 PM
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Great account, looking forward to more installments. ITC Mughal is seriously impressive, but I was a bit surprised at the Lalit, Delhi. Tour operators usually do not choose that for sightseeing tourists.
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Dec 3rd, 2013, 05:52 PM
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Galactus - The Lalit was a business class hotel. It was fine for us as we didn't know what to expect (our first day) so we chose that because of its "familiarity" if you will.
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Dec 3rd, 2013, 06:07 PM
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Oct 8 - Jaipur

Our Jaipur guide - Lalji

We checked into Samode Haveli. It is a gorgeous converted haveli. It has an "elephant entrance" … basically a wavy ramp so the elephants would have sure footing. I was surprised to learn that the elephant ramp was built in the 1940's for a royal's wedding. You would figure in Rajasthan it would have been built that way from the start. It is crazy how a beautiful hotel can be in the midst of rundown poor neighborhoods. Every hotel we stayed at was like that -- gated, guarded, and they did bomb checks of the trunk and under the car every time one entered. Free wifi in public areas! Yay! The weather was perfect to boot. Our room was a sitting room with a daybed on the first floor with a bathroom, and up a narrow wrought iron spiral staircase to the king-sized bedroom with another bathroom. Angela said her knees would blow out going up and down those stairs, so I took the upstairs room. Two days of pure heavenly sleep away from Angela!! Our travel agent recommended the mutton curry at the Samode outdoor garden restaurant, and it was delicious! One cannot eat in the hotel's restaurant unless they are a guest.

Our guide, Lalji, was a retired history professor. I have to say that although all the tour guides were good, Lalji was the best. He was older so he was around when the British ruled India, was around for the Partition, and has seen lots of changes over the years. His insights and opinions were very interesting and valued.

The sights of the lake along the way to Amber Fort were beautiful. The hawkers are relentless and we got bamboozled at the Fort … ended up buying a batch of junky little round mirrors for $9. But at least they weren't begging. The week before we got there we were told that the government stopped the elephant ride up the hill because of the way they are treated to mold them into submission. Anyone ever see Water for Elephants? I'm glad they stopped this horrid treatment. We are spry enough to bound up the steep ramp to the fort anyway.

The Royal Observatory was another highlight of my trip. It houses the largest sundial in the world and every other astrological and astronomical thing you can think of … in megasize. They were used in conjunction with the astronomers of the day by the rich to find compatible spouses for their children. A gorgeous day with puffy clouds and blue skies provided a perfect backdrop for this wonderful observatory. I was amazed how advanced this science was in the 17th century.

We passed Hawa Mahal or Palace of the Winds, basically a façade with small windows so the ladies of the court could watch the comings and goings of the hoi polloi without being seen. Pretty cool, but not much else to say.

We went to the Turban Museum -- not much of a museum. In the courtyard was the plain Surabhi Restaurant. We ordered delicious bhindi (okra) masala and chana pindi (a garbanzo dish). I'm seriously loving Indian food! Angela got her palm read for 500 rupees. He told her he would email her a full report. I think that's hysterical.

Got driven to The Shree Textile Factory, watched a demonstration of the age-old art of fabric printing and got custom-made kameezes for $45 (which will be delivered to our hotel) and a scarf. Angela bought an additional 5 scarves.

Lalji took us to City Palace. Half the City Palace is a private residence and half is open to the public in a museum capacity. At the entrance, I was mesmerized watching the snake charmer, imagine how the snake feels! For some reason, however, the cobra started to get agitated and whip around, and the snake charmer had to cover him in his basket. Another scary creature encounter.

Interesting fact: After India gained its independence in 1947, the maharajas were pretty much stripped of their power. The government said that they could keep their residences. But they no longer had means of income to keep their lifestyle, so they opened up parts of their residences to the public as museums and hotels. Seems pretty lucrative.

Lalji took us to Gatore Ki Chhatriyan Crematorium. It is not a well-known tourist area but should be. It was a Crematorium only for Royals, made of gorgeous marble and very grand. At Gatore, we met two women from Las Vegas in the jewelry exporting business doing a photo shoot. They went to India one day and never went back.
From many low-lying vistas of Jaipur one can see the temple Garh Ganesh. Its setting beckons you to come as there are 365 steps winding around a high hill to the top. Legend has it that if you climb these steps, you will go to heaven, hopefully not on the same day. Angela was out from the start thinking about her knees. I was going to do it myself, but started to think of my safety going up there at 6:30 in the morning, so I didn't go. Angela has banned me from doing anything too daring, since my Costa Rica broken shoulder mishap in 2011.

On our travel agent's recommendation, we partook in a cooking demonstration in Dera Mandawa's haveli. The demonstration was very informative, and the food delicious and fresh. They own cows in the backyard whose milk they use to make paneer, which is surprisingly easy to make, by the way. I was secretly concerned about the unpasteurized milk, but I was fine. I highly recommend Dera Mandawa's. If you are interested, I can send you their website. They are a lovely couple from the warrior caste who are interesting conversationalists. A lovely time was had by all. Susan, my travel agent, is going to India for their daughter's wedding in a few months.

Our salwaar kameezes were waiting for us when we got back to the Samode. Booo hisss! Our pants were poorly made and poorly fitting. After getting into a hissy fit because of this, we made a phone call to the manager of the store (they were closed for the day), and so called our Sita contact who ironed (excuse the pun) everything out and managed to get us our money back for the pants. We kept the tops. Stay away from Shree.

Another interesting thing we noticed is that although there are stray dogs ALL over India, they are not menacing and generally do not bark. They seem content. Maybe dogs are not really meant to be kept as pets.

Oct 9 - still in Jaipur

Lalji let us loose in the Jaipur shopping area across from Hawa Mahal, and we got accosted by shopkeepers. We loved it though. I bargained down a pair of Indian-style flip flops. And Angela walked out of a store with a scarf completely wrapped around her face, burka-style. It was pretty funny, even the shopkeepers were chuckling.

At our request, Lalji took us to a rooftop temple - to take video of Jaipur intersection. Crazy!! But we were glad to finally get an aerial view of the madness and the lovely Jaipur market. Down the stairs through the Jaipur food market. We looked for Goldie's (which are these tasty little corn snacks) in the outdoor market and bought half pound for 25 rupees (about 45 cents). Price in Fairway for something similar? ... $3.49 lb.

It is amazing that temples are just constructed wherever. There was a miniature temple right in the middle of the main street in Jaipur … just to lay claim.

Lalji says that there is a 40% diabetes rate for adults in India because of bad nutrition. He said even children are starting to get it. I'm not sure what he is talking about because there are fruits and vegetables everywhere you turn. When I got home, I googled "diabetes rate in India." It seems that it's 8% ... and 50 percent of them have renal problems.

Funny Jaipur story:

While we were driving through Jaipur, I asked, "Lalji, why doesn't Alam (who is Muslim and married) have a beard?

Lalji: Well, he's not an alcoholic, so he doesn't drink beer.

Me: Huh? (Pause). Oh oh, not a beer, a beard (I grab my chin).

Lalji: (He laughs.) After 9/11, Westerners were afraid to have Muslim drivers, so Alam doesn't have one.

(Lalji asks Alam a question in Hindi.)

Lalji: And Alam says he doesn't want to pray 5 times a day either.

On to Jodhpur. Bye Lalji.
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Dec 3rd, 2013, 07:32 PM
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Love your report. Brings back fond memories of India. Waiting for more.
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Dec 4th, 2013, 07:15 PM
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The trip from Jaipur to Jodhpur is about 7 hours. The highway to Jodhpur was very smooth and well-maintained for about half of the trip. It passes thru countryside, farming, marble cutting, and sheep and goat herding. There are very strange looking bare hills that look like they are ready to break off in pieces. The sun was setting as we drove making for a beautiful sunset over the Indian hills and plains.

Jodhpur seems to be a modern city. Jodhpur, known as the Blue City. Why? Because there are many indigo-painted blue houses. Supposedly to keep the heat out and the mosquitos away. I spied a coffee place (three months old) called Freshpresso that serves Lavazza espresso coffee. We popped in for a quick espresso. Delicious, but not cheap. We checked into the Agit Bhawan. A very cool medieval-influenced hotel. Their website does not do it justice.

Late afternoon, Michael, our guide, meets us and we go to Sadar Market, lively, bustling. This is what my India is: sights, smells, sounds, people. We see the famous clock tower. It is a pretty clock tower. Glad I saw it. In the background you can see the enormous Mehrangarh Fort. We'll see it up close and personal tomorrow.

Comp wifi and drinks and dessert for dinner.

Oct 10

Another highlight was Mehrangarh Fort. It is situated on a high rocky cliff and it is massive and beautiful, its ramparts surround the fort and a lot of land. One can see the walls climb up the hills around the fort from the street. It is really a sight to behold outside the fort and inside.

Jaswant Thada Memorial is a gorgeous memorial dedicated to Maharaja Jaswant Singh. Very pretty memorial, especially for picture-taking. Interesting fact: 96% of Hindus cremate, 4% put the body on the roof and birds of prey eventually eat it. These are called Parsis. (More on that later.)

We were taken to Maharani Arts Emporium. I bought a scarf for my sister. What beautiful things! But I really did not want to buy any more stuff. A manager was proud to say he does business with Richard Gere, Donna Karan, Hermes.
We needed cash … went to ATM (they are very safe, usually or because of a security guard outside the door). We bought street food, a samosa - wish me luck! (Did not like).

We had a reservation at Rohet Garh for lunch. A very fancy resort and very mediocre food. I couldn't resist some peeled sliced cucumbers. I'm seriously missing salads. So far so good. I told Angela by the time we leave India in two weeks, we will be drinking water from the faucet. Haha.

Then a Jeep safari to Bishnoi village. The Bishnoi people have been there for hundreds of years. They are one with nature. They are an offshoot of the Hindu religion and believe that in their next life they will be Black Buck antelopes, which by the way, are beautiful and a protected species. The Bishnois think that if an antelope wanders into their house, it is probably a relative. They are strict vegetarians and follow 29 rules. Check out Wikipedia for Bishnoi Village. Very interesting! The village was spotless albeit dusty. !!!HIGHLIGHT ALERT!!! We carted the pens, pads, lollipops and taffy, we assembled in Delhi for the school children we were going to see. We gave the bag to the teacher to give out, but they insisted we gave them out. What happy faces! We are looking for an organization that helps the Bishnoi people, or maybe we will start one ourselves. Driving thru the Bishnoi area we followed we herd of antelopes. They are fun to watch as they hop/jump/run away.

In the Bishnoi village we partook in an opium ceremony. Two high priests did a short chant and made opium water. The government banned the smoking of opium, so they use opium water, at least for the tourists. The priest offers some opium water to the next person who chants and drinks the opium water out of the offering hand. We were offered some opium water from the hand of the guide. I felt bad not to, so I did. Man, am I pushing the limit!

On the way back to hotel for lazy time by the pool (pool closed for swimming but we could sit by it), and then gin and tonics for dinner . And sleep.

Oct 11

On the way to Udaipur, we stopped at a roadside area that had a shrine to a motorbike where a person was killed. There were many Indians paying homage. I guess there is a motorbike god. We met a woman from New Zealand who told us this was her second time to India in a year. She said, "you love it and you don't know why." She's right, I love it too, but I'm not sure why. I will explore why.

We stopped at the White Marble Jain Temple at Ranakpur. It is absolutely gorgeous with beautiful intricate carvings in marble.

We had lunch at Fatebagh palace. It is a "relocated" palace, in 2002, around 65,00 pieces of the crumbling palace were transported to Ranakpur. It is now a gorgeous hotel, and the lunch we had there was very good.

Long ride … we stopped at Pali, a roadside restaurant and souvenir shop. They had really beautiful urns, knives, and hookahs. I bought a silver warrior knife for my son, started at 6000 bought it for 3500, and a big bronze OM symbol for my daughter. Oh, and we had some tea and bought a box of Hobnobs (a tribute to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel).

On the road we got a perfect shot of a camel herder and his camels. The reason for perfection is that they were walking on a raised part of a dirt road so we got the sand dune Lawrence-of-Arabia effect. It is one of my favorite pictures, and graces my computer desktop at work.

We got beautiful sunset pictures. Once it got dark, things began to get interesting. That was also the point where one highway ended and another began. This road was not so nice. It's a good thing we had Alam, and our Toyota Innova MUV, the suspension is great, and we needed it for this road. Ok so now it's dark about 6:15p and people are crossing the highway! There were cows sitting on the road, people in wagons with no rear lights, trucks coming at you, very dangerous. But no accidents for anyone. Thank goodness. The driving is crazy. There are virtually no traffic lights. You do need nerves of steel to be a driver. And people generally do not speed. They say to drive in India you need three things: good brakes, good horn, and good luck. The drive was long and the night wore on. But thank goodness for Alam, our knight in shining armor.

Just passed a welder working on a bulldozer. No gloves, no welding helmet. Where is OSHA when you need them!

Oct 12

Our guide in Udaipur - Manoj.

We arrive in Udaipur very late. We take a jitney boat to the Leela Palace. There is another entrance to the Leela, but the road is too narrow for a regular car. The Leela Palace is just that ... a palace. The welcome was amazing as we were met by a turbaned Rajasthani offering mango juice. Check in was done in our room! The other hotels we stayed and will be staying at are very nice, but the Leela is grand in every way…including price. Our room overlooks the lake and we have a balcony (which we did not use because mosquitos are everywhere on the lake.). This is the first time I have really noticed the bugs. I think because it still rains in Udaipur in early October. They had four days of rain right before we got there, and it is still very humid. There are only a handful of guests in the hotel, and I'm thinking how much this place costs to maintain. We were told that at the start of the wedding season, November 3, something to do with Diwali, it will be at 100% capacity.

Our plan tomorrow is to rush our tour guide along so we can lounge by the luxurious pool ... good luck with that. Our tour guides have been very good, but they do have their own secret agenda (actually not so secret since I figured it out) ... they take you to a "demonstration," and you sit for 5 minutes watching marble cutting, textile weaving, fabric printing, whatever. At that point you can't get away, and end up buying something you don't really want or need. I'm sure they get a "kickback." I will need to put my foot down tomorrow because we are not paying $500 a night in this gorgeous hotel just to sleep.

It's time to do our laundry again. In the Samode Haveli we got our laundry done for about $16. So we whip out our laundry paper and rates. Leela wants $6.75 to launder a shirt! It would have cost $100 to do the same amount of laundry. I don't think so. So here we are, in the most expensive and beautiful hotel I have ever been in in my life, washing our clothes in the bathroom sink. We hung everything up on hangers all around the room. It looks like Dhobi Ghat Angela says, and we laugh so hard we peed. But why oh why did I not take a picture … of Dhobi Ghat at the Leela that is.
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Dec 5th, 2013, 12:22 PM
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What a fun report. And to think I have actually requested to see a block printing demonstration in Jodphur.....
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Dec 5th, 2013, 04:01 PM
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Thoroughly enjoying your trip report! Love your wit and style! Makes me want to go back right now and see all those places again...thanks for the wonderful read.
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Dec 6th, 2013, 06:17 PM
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Thanks guys, I'm glad you are enjoying it. As long as I write, I'm still in India.
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Dec 6th, 2013, 06:28 PM
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Oct 12 - Still in Udaipur

We woke up extra early to have a leisurely breakfast, and as planned, called our tour company and cancel the day's activities and just lounge by the gorgeous pool. Very cool pool … they give you a small picnic basket with juices, fruit and snacks, and the daily newspapers -- in English. After three hours, we had had enough of that because the heat was oppressive. So we called Sita, and they were very accommodating. Oh I forgot to tell you … in Delhi, at the beginning of our trip, Angela and I each got a phone that allowed us to call within India … and for a per-call fee, we could also call home. We took the boat over to the "mainland" and met Manoj, and our teddy bear and security blanket, Alam.

We went on a quick tour of City Palace and the Crystal Gallery. The marahaja commissioned Britain to make crystal furniture, according to his specs. It took 12 years and the day before it arrived, he died. The family considered it a bad omen, so they put it in storage, and it lay undiscovered for 96 years! It was then put on display in an annex of the City Palace I think about 12 years ago. Crazy!

We take a quick run to Jagdish Temple. It is really beautiful, but we didn't want to make the steps (google it, you may not want to take the steps either). Also, we are halfway through our trip, and I am templed out. They are all starting to look the same, and I am getting bored with them. We asked Manoj to take us to the local market. What a pleasure! He took us to the vegetable and fruit market and there were no animals, bikes, tuk tuks, or motorbikes, hence NO BEEPING! We bought a custard apple! Yummy. It was 10 rupees. That would have been 3 bucks in US.

Just a quick tip: I realize after looking at my pictures at home, that unless I go online to see which temple is which, according to my itinerary, I don't remember what is what. And a date stamp on the photo looks horrid. So here's the tip: If you have video capacity on your camera, just do a quick two-second video stamp saying where you are before you go into a place.

We wanted to go to Monsoon Palace to see the sun set on Lake Picchola, but Manoj suggested Sunset Terrace, right next to City Palace. The view from Sunset Terrace with the Taj Lake Palace Hotel and the hotels on the perimeter with the gorgeous Aravalli Hills in the background was beautiful! Monsoon Palace was in the background so it made it even nicer. Because of where the Monsoon Palace is situated, we would not have gotten the pretty view of the lake in our pictures AND the sunset.

Oct 13

Up at 4:30am to catch a flight to Varanasi via Delhi. Bye Alam, we are sad to part.

Every screen in the airport had ETA and ETD properly displayed. We had Sunday brunch at the hotel's (Gateway Ganges, a Taj property) restaurant ... mediocre. The Gateway Ganges leaves much to be desired after spending two luxurious days at the Leela. Oh well. It is adequate.

Varanasi was the perfect place to be for the last day of Navratri, people were dancing in the streets (mostly young men) and there was celebration in the air. The streets were adorned with lights and people had on their "Sunday best." Our guide, JayPee, met us at 5:00p to go to the aarti ceremony. Aarti ceremonies happen rain or shine 365 days a year. They are supposed to be very spiritual, but there were way too many people for that in my opinion. Cars were only allowed up to a certain point because of the festival, so we got out and walked thru the lanes. Varanasi was getting the winds and rains from Cyclone Phalin that was about to touch down on the town of Odisha, 732 kms away. The streets were muddy and wet feces from all forms of life dotted the small lanes. My advice is to wear black sweats or capri pants and the junkiest sneakers you have, or if you have enough room in your suitcase, bring a pair of those plastic rainboots … you won't be sorry. We were given a front row seat on one of the boats, and the ceremony began. It was mesmerizing as huge speakers blared out the chanting that has gone on for centuries, as seven very hot-looking priests began ringing bells, burning incense, and handling vessels loaded with fire. Before the ceremony Angela got "blessed" from a high priest. She asked JayPee how much. He said 25 rupees. Well, the priest kept asking the names of her children, husband, father, friends … he ended up wanting 25 rupees for each person. She said no and gave him 25 rupees and we left. We came upon a housewares shop, and each bought a stainless steel spice container, a staple of most Indian households, that holds the six spices (usually cardamom, cumin, chili, cloves, turmeric, fennel), that make up various masalas because we are both going to become awesome Indian food cooks when we get home. $6!!!

Oct 14

Up at dawn to watch the worshippers pay homage to Mother Ganges. This is the first time we had seen the Ganges in daylight, and it is seriously polluted. I personally was cringing as people completely immersed themselves in this polluted mess. But their faces were ecstatic, so what do I know? Sadly, because of the choppiness of the water, we were not able to go the boat trip down the Ganges and see the ghats. JayPee said we could try again at 4 p.m. So we took a walk, bought tea and incense, saw the Golden Temple. In this temple we couldn't bring in bags, cameras, etc. Very scary. So we took our cash, credit cards, and passports and stuffed them in our pockets and left our bags and cameras in a shop. JayPee said they were safe … and they were, but what were we thinking????!!! When we got back, we "thanked" the shopkeeper by buying chai masala and incense. So a quick breakfast, a drive-through of Benares Hindu University (India's old university), Sarnath and its museum.

Sarnath is so peaceful. That is where Buddha was enlightened. It has the oldest stupas … made out of brick. There you can also find the world's tallest standing Buddha (80 feet). It is a sight to behold.

JayPee met us at 4 p.m. for our boat ride down the Ganges. We walked through endless lanes flanked with mountains of wood to the most famous Ghat of all -- the Dasaswamedh Ghat. There cremations happen seven days a week. A cremation needs 300 kilos of wood and takes approximately four hours to cremate a body. The family has to buy the wood, and for good measure, they buy a few bags of sandalwood chips from the sandalwoodwalla to mask the smell of burning bodies. Elaborately wrapped bodies were prepared for cremation. No pictures please … at least not close ups. They just want you to be respectful. Thankfully we did not see any freshly burning bodies. And very disturbingly, there were dogs scavenging the piles of ashes for any unburned flesh. But they are starving so it made it less upsetting. There were also young boys raking through the piles of ash looking for any jewelry that the families left on the deceased relative. Pretty crazy!

Yay! The weather is good enough for our boat ride! We were laughing hysterically as were climbed from boat to boat until we got to one nearest the river. The boat ride was good, and we saw many ghats. The wind was still whipping up though, so we were soaked. I had to keep my mouth clamped shut to avoid any accidental Ganges ingestion.

Back to hotel to take showers and dinner at Hotel Surya (recommended by JayPee), mediocre food. JayPee materialized with some sweets for us as we were having coffee. Creeeeepy! Bye bye JayPee!! On to Nepal.
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Dec 6th, 2013, 06:41 PM
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Errr... Sarnath is where the Buddha first preached the Dharma after his enlightenment. He gained enlightenmentt in Bodhgaya, in Bihar province.

Agree about the pollution - you expect a sacred river to be treated with more respect.
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Dec 7th, 2013, 03:27 AM
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More like 16 cents.
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Dec 7th, 2013, 04:14 PM
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Meant to add, still loving your report!

Varanasi, for me, was a highlight. We were there in January and there was no rain, so while the streets bpwere filled with garbage, at least it wasn't wet stuff!

We loved the Aarti ceremony - we got off our boat and sat near the front, and while there were crowds of people, it was a great mix of pilgrims as well as foreign tourists (like yours truly). It was theatrical but felt genuine.
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