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Our 1st Trip to India--6 Weeks in (mostly) Rural, Less-visited India

Our 1st Trip to India--6 Weeks in (mostly) Rural, Less-visited India

Old Apr 5th, 2012, 05:43 AM
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Our 1st Trip to India--6 Weeks in (mostly) Rural, Less-visited India

My husband and I just got back from a very enjoyable six week trip to Rajasthan (primarily smaller, less-known and less-touristed places), Orchha, Khajuraho, Varanasi, Corbett park and many places in Uttarkhand. So, it is time for me to fill all of you in on how it went. Although I’d done much of the reading, researching, planning and thinking early on, our actual trip was really pulled together at the last minute because we bought our plane tickets only eleven days before we left. And, ticket prices were pretty stable so we didn’t pay any more than we would have if we’d bought them six months earlier. I know some of you early-planners are probably rolling your eyes, but it worked well for us. We were travelling in more shoulder season, and I only ran across a couple lodgings that didn’t have room for us with this relatively last minute planning. The major problem we had with trying to arrange a more last-minute trip was with the trains. This was so frustrating because I have never before been anywhere where trains are booked up months in advance and where their availability actually can determine your trip options.

Last July or August my husband and I started thinking about taking a major trip to India—probably late January into mid March. So, I started haunting the various traveler forums online, and I checked out a slew of books on India out from my local library. The more I started reading and researching, the more confused I became as I started to realize that saying I am going to take a trip to India is like saying I am going to take a trip to Europe—waaaaay too big of a place to easily visit in one trip. The challenge was how to narrow down where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do. Another challenge for me was that some things happened in our lives that made us change the timing of our trip so we ended up going from the last week of February until the start of April rather than the end of January to mid-March as we had originally planned. Thus, I had to create a completely different itinerary than we’d originally thought about because that one month window drastically changes the weather patterns in India, and we knew we did not want to cope with extreme heat. For example, I just looked at the weather for Jodphur; right now it is 104F/40C. Not for us!

We are very well-travelled and have done lots of international travel, but India proved to be more of a challenge to plan than any of the other places we’ve visited around the world. Normally our preferred mode of travel is slow travel, getting to know a smaller area very well by settling into an apartment or house in an area for five to seven days before moving on to a different area. I soon came to realize that this style of travel wouldn’t work out for India, and we would have to plan a trip where we would live out of our suitcases, continually moving on to see something new at the next place. However, I still tried to plan what I thought would be relatively relaxing and non-aggressive trip with most stays of at least 2 nights in a place. As it ended up though, despite thinking I wasn’t overly stretching us, it still seemed like we were on the go doing things nearly all of the time with very little just sitting around time. We’d loaded a ton of books to read on our e-readers, had taken our travel Scrabble game and had even put some videos on our netbook because we thought we’d have a lot of down time. Not so until about the last week or so of our trip, and I didn’t even finish one book. So, a word to the wise is to underplan rather than to overplan as far as an itinerary and what you think you’ll be able to do.

The very best piece of advice I had about planning a trip to India I found from a travel agent who is a frequent poster over on TripAdvisor. Her advice, which is really true, is to think about the types of experiences you want to have on your trip to India rather than the places you want to go. This couldn’t be more true and was immensely helpful to me in thinking about how to organize our trip. Another very helpful piece of advice that I found (and took) was in an article in a London newspaper that suggested first-time visitors to Rajasthan focus on the more rural areas rather than the cities that so many people plan around. Good advice! I also got a ton of help from people on this forum, so I hope to pay it back by putting together a report that will help other people (both first time travelers to India and others who have some experience there). Finally, thanks to all of you who helped me out so much, answering my countless questions (and I know there were a lot). So, here goes with a loooooong report……..

IS SIX WEEKS TOO LONG?
We have never taken a trip of this length before and were wondering if (a) we’d be ready to go home by the end of week two or three, (b) if we’d be ready to kill each other after spending all of this non-stop time together, and (c) if we’d be able to put up with India for six weeks. I am happy to report that we were just fine with a trip of this length and found that even with six weeks we were still able to see only a small portion of the country and the places we wanted to visit. Going through the process of getting visas was such a hassle that we applied for the ten year visa and definitely plan to make return trips to see other parts of the country.

When we were in India there was never a point where we asked ourselves why we’d planned such a long trip or even thought about the idea of trying to change our plane tickets for an earlier return. But, we purposely planned a trip with a variety of types of experiences so we wouldn’t be forted out or big citied out or palaced out. We intermingled these types of experiences, and I am sure that is why we weren’t so overwhelmed and exhausted that we’d want to go home to escape. On the other hand, I am absolutely certain that if all we had done was to run around from one major tourist site to another and visited only the noisy, dirty cities, we would have been fed up and ready to come home after about two weeks. We really found the most enjoyable things in India to be visiting more minor sites, observing and participating in everyday life, doing some lowkey things, and interacting with native Indians (and not a bunch of fellow tourists) rather than the biggies that everyone talks about all of the time and the places that all tour groups go to visit.

CULTURE SHOCK
We’d been warned by posters here that India is just so completely different from other places in the world and heard so much about culture shock for the first-time Indian visitor. We’d been told how India overwhelms the first time visitor with its assault on all of one’s senses. Well, this never happened for us, and our first few days we kept questioning each other as to when this was going to happen. It never did, other than perhaps the first time we went to a train station at night and saw all of the people sleeping around it outside. But, we’ve visited developing countries before, and we never travel on tours or in 5 star luxury style that insulates us from a country. So, I can understand how if people have only traveled in the US or in Western Europe India might come as more of a shock to them. And, many times during our trip we would comment that we would never recommend India to certain friends of ours because they would be so turned off by all of it—the craziness, the chaos, the noise, the dirt, the poop, the minor and sometimes major frustrations.

I almost had more reverse culture shock on returning home. After all of the animal poop everywhere in India, it seemed strange to be so concerned about making sure I picked up the one little turd my dog deposited during our walk today. And, it was almost unbelievable to actually have cars—ones that weren’t honking--stop for me because pedestrians have right of way here.

TRIP COSTS--LODGING, FOOD AND DRINK
India certainly isn’t the really cheap country to travel in that some people expect it to be. But, it is definitely cheaper than having a comparable trip to Western Europe or the US. After our six-week visit, we decided that the rule of thumb for India is that you never get more than you pay for (in other words, don’t expect to find that hidden gem at a lower than to-be-expected price) and be certain that you are actually getting what you think you are paying for.

I used to categorize us as budget to mid-range travelers, but now I have realized that we are definitely more in the mid-range category. And, frankly, I could never be a budget traveler in India because I do have some standards for lodging that could never be met by dirt cheap lodging. For lodging we had a really wide range of prices with the low end at $28 per night (we had a couple one night stays in this range) to two super splurge (for us) nights in a suite at a deluxe heritage hotel for $170 a night (wasn't worth it to us and wouldn't do it again). Most nights though, on average I’d estimate that we paid around $60 for a room, and we stayed some very nice places. As a general rule of thumb though, for people who want a certain standard of comfort and cleanliness, I guess I’d say that for the most part I wouldn’t recommend staying in places that are less than around 2000 ($40) rupees per night.

Food is tough to categorize as far as costs because so many of the places we stayed were in smaller locales without restaurants and thus included meals in their pricing. We never did get brave enough to try any street food because we were trying to be cautious and stay healthy. Eating out in India is very reasonable; it is the alcohol that costs you if you want it. We are not huge drinkers but do enjoy a glass of wine or beer, and you pay dearly in India for alcohol (if you can even get it). (I know this probably sounds silly, but after hearing how bad and how expensive Indian wine is, we actually packed one of those 3 or 4 bottle equivalent boxes of wine from home, and it lasted nearly our entire trip for an occasional before dinner drink.) After a couple of nights when we discovered that the cost of two beers (they are big beers though) was more than the cost of our dinners, we decided we could live without that dinner beer. And, many of the places we were didn’t even offer alcohol at all, and often you have to ask since beer frequently isn’t even listed on a menu. (When we were in Varanasi at a rooftop restaurant one evening the waiter quickly came and took an unopened bottle of beer off of our table saying something like he’d be bringing us a better and colder bottle soon. When it never came, we asked when we’d get the new bottle. They finally admitted to us that their sources told them the police were coming to make sure there was no alcohol being sold, and when this happens they take away all evidence of beer for at least 45 minutes.)

Guesstimating, I’d say we spent around $80 to $90 per day for room and board for the two of us. This figure also factors in three nights where we didn’t pay for a room because we were on an overnight train.

WHERE TO GO AND FOR HOW LONG?
We knew right off the bat that we didn’t necessarily feel constrained to visit all of the usual places the standard tours visit (no, we never did make it to the Taj Mahal), and we also knew that we wanted to limit the places we visited so we didn’t constantly feel like we were chickens running around with our heads cut off. We planned our trip based on a combination of factors--primarily overall ambience of the location, interesting activities available and weather considerations. Thus, we started our trip in Rajasthan and then moved on to Orchha, Khajuraho and Varanasi before heading up into Uttarkarhand and the foothills of the Himalayas to escape from the ever-building heat.

The itinerary we ended up with (price indicated is per night):
• Delhi-- Delhi B & B 1 night upon arrival in India $80
• Overnight train to Jaisalmer (I’d wondered whether to go to Jaisalmer because it would be too touristy. Turned out to be a favorite of ours on our trip.)
• Jaisalmer-- Hotel Victoria 3 nights $72 (breakfast & a thali dinner included)
• Train from Jaisalmer to Jodphur
• Jodphur—Juna Mahal 3 nights (didn’t arrive until nearly midnight) $45
• Fort Bhadrajun 1 night $51
• Fort Dhamli 2 nights $83 (all meals & a daily guided walk included)
• Kumbhalgar—Hotel Silent Valley $51
• Castle Bera 2 nights $160 (all meals & 2 safaris each day)
• Dungapur—Udai Bilas 2 nights $170 for a suite (a last minute change in plans pushed us into a suite rather than the $140 room we’d planned on)
• Fort Bassi 2 nights $64
• Udaipur--Jagat Niwas 1 night $80 for lake facing room with jhakaro
• Overnight train from Udaipur to Gwalior where a driver picked us up to take us to Orchha (maybe 4 hours drive)
• Orchha—Sheesh Mahal 1 night (really wanted 2 in Orchha but couldn’t make it work in our itinerary) $40
• Khajuraho—Hotel Surya 1 night $28
• Flight from Khajuraho to Varanasi
• Varanasi—Shiva Ganges View Guesthouse 3 nights $80
• long, 18 hour train trip from Varanasi to Haridwar (10:00 am to 4:30 am)
• Haridwar—Haveli Hari Ganga 2 nights $100 including breakfast & taxes
• Rikikesh—Hotel Amaris (bad place booked by bad agent) 1 night $70 including breakfast & taxes
• VanGhat—Riverine Woods 2 nights part of a mahseer fishing package for husband
• Ranikhet—West View Hotel 2 nights off season rate of $70 for AP
• Kausani—KMVN Guesthouse 1 night $30 including breakfast
• Binsar Sanctuary—Khali Estate Mountain Resort 2 nights $100 for AP
• Kaladhungi--Camp Corbett 2 nights $100 for AP
• Outskirts of Corbett Park—Pine Tree Resort (bad place booked by bad agent) 2 nights package
• Train from Ramnagar to Delhi for our flight home

More to come as I find the time...........
julies is offline  
Old Apr 5th, 2012, 06:06 AM
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Thanks for posting a report! I appreciate the details, and especially the demonstration that you can sleep and eat comfortably on a moderate budget. You mention an agent for Rikikesh - did you mostly book through an agent, or on your own? And what resources did you find particularly useful for off the beaten track locales?

Glad to hear that you'll go back to India!

BTW, if you can be REALLY loose with your schedule you can get train tickets 48 hours ahead of departure on the tatkal quota. And I hear that if you're on the waiting list you have a good chance to get on. Never cut it that close myself, although I did use the tatkal quota on my last trip (see http://www.indiamike.com/india-artic...ays-waitlists/).
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Old Apr 5th, 2012, 06:44 AM
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Nice start. I've been looking forward to your report.

The one or two nights per place would drive me crazy. My usual rule is no less than three nights in any one place. What do you think? WHould that kind of pace worked well for a trip like this?
Kathie is online now  
Old Apr 5th, 2012, 11:38 AM
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looking forward to more too.
live42day is offline  
Old Apr 5th, 2012, 11:45 AM
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it seems to me that you rushed from one place to another... do you feel that you got to know anyplace??

i'm anxious to read what you actually did
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Old Apr 5th, 2012, 12:39 PM
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Thank you julies for posting this trip summary. I have two friends planning a trip to India and your itinerary/schedule will interest them, I'm certain. You've experienced a great "taste" of India. For me, it's about what I can absorb from a place or experience, not how much time I spend there. How the place makes me feel and to understand something of the process of living life in each town/City, area I visit. Time spent in a place means little for me, if there's no engaging with local folks. I loved Orchha, Kausani and Ranikhet. I've recommended them to my friends as must-sees. Dalhousie is gorgeous too! I've spent a day in a town and felt I experienced and absorbed so much from simply talking with Indian travellers and locals, eating with them and laughing with them, catching buses with them and asking them about their lives. The trains are a great way of engaging with "ordinary" folk, try them if you can, next time! We all have our own idea of travel so it's wonderful that you discovered YOUR way to experience India! I'm a early riser (5 a.m.) and some of my best memories of India are walking the streets early and observing, engaging and attempting to understand how people exist in such a chaotic, amazingly diverse Country. Your trip sounded well planned even though you say it was organised at short notice. Thanks again julies.
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Old Apr 5th, 2012, 02:24 PM
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I'll try to answer a few of your questions now though I hope to put some more thorough answers in the next part(s) of my report.

Trains and seats--We were waitlisted on our train trip from Delhi to Jaisalmer and did get on, but I'd booked both 3AC and 2AC (the one that was waitlisted) because we really wanted the cabin with only 4 people rather than the 3AC with 6 people. When we moved up off the waitlist, I cancelled the 3AC tickets. We didn't get tatkal tickets, but we did get foreign visitor quota tickets for the trip from Varanasi to Haridwar. Getting these was an Indian experience of its own. We went to the train station in Udaipur and got in the jam-packed line for any sort of special tickets or ticket changes. It is a crazy system in that you need to get to the window to explain your needs to the man at the counter, and he then sees if he can help you. Then, if he can, he gives you a piece of paper and the information on the train. You take that piece of paper away and come back to the window with it filled out and give him the cash for the tickets. It was like a rugby scrum at the window with everyone jamming in with their shoulders and waving their pieces of paper in the window. I figured, when in Rome.....So, I was right there wedging my shoulder in too. This foreigner quota deal worked for us and we were able to get tickets, but we'd given the guy 2 different days and 2 different possible destination cities that would work for us. Even with all of that flexibility, there was only one option he had available. We grabbed it.

Agents--We primarily did everything on our own, but I did use 2 different agents--a marvelous one in Rajasthan and one in Uttarkarhand who did some things ok but who also messed up some things and who we'd never, ever recommend to anyone. I'll fill you in on these when I get a chance.

Going around from place to place--Yes, we moved around a lot but most of the places were only a couple hours apart and we had a driver lots of the time, so it wasn't as though we were spending entire days moving on all of the time. The reality is that I don't know if any of the places we visited I'd have stayed at longer (other than Orchha, and we knew ahead of time that the 1 night we could stay there wouldn't be sufficient, but spending another day there meant a plane ticket that would be 4 times the price of the one the day before). I know many people say they could hunker down and spend many days in Udaipur, but, much as I looked forward to Udaipur, it just didn't do all that much for us. I think the reason so many people find Udaipur so appealing is because it is a little calmer than the other cities, it has some cafes that could be kind of construed as European, and it is a pretty easy place to be. We were in Udaipur only a day and a half, and I'd planned this on purpose after reading that many people who had done mainly rural as we had done didn't find the city as appealing as those who'd done the more typical tourist diet of all of the major tourist cities. The Kumaon area (in Uttarkarhand in the foothills of the Himalayas) is a place where one could stop and slow down and spend some more time. It had been our original intent to spend 4 nights at Khali Estate in Binsar because one can do half day walks to local villages there. So, we planned to spend 4 nights and do 3 or 4 different walks to different villages. But, after our first walk we discovered that "village" really means 2 or 3 farms located together and that these "villages" had populations from 8 to 80 people. We decided these wouldn't seem all that different to us, so we moved on. And, we talked to some women from Delhi who were staying at Khali Estate with us. They told us that the Kumaon area really is for people who want to escape from the city and do some relaxing or some trekking or some birdwatching. Different places there are basically just different variations on the same theme, so we decided we didn't need another couple days of the same thing just in a different location.
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Old Apr 5th, 2012, 02:42 PM
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Sorry julies, I should have added "day" to my comment re train travel... "day trains are a great way of engaging"...overnight trains are not all that conducive to chatting!! Love the report so far...thanks!
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Old Apr 5th, 2012, 04:29 PM
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I had some questions from some of you about what we actually did. Here is a start to answer that question:

Delhi—

Our first day in India we had until our 5:30 pm train departure from Delhi. Although our plan had been to just take it easy a bit, walk around the neighborhood some, and find a SIM card, we instead spend the day sightseeing. The owner of the B & B told us that there really isn't too much to see and do on foot in the neighborhood; he suggested that we hire a driver for the day to take us around to some of the major sites and then deliver us to the train station. Since all of this was only going to cost us about $10 more than it would have just for the train station delivery, we took him up on it. Actually, from what we had time to see, Delhi is more interesting that we thought it would be, and it is less intense than we'd expected. In fact, the typical chaotic India that we'd been expecting to encounter didn't occur at all until we went through Old Delhi on our way to the train station.

Our first stop was the large and beautiful Bahai temple where visitors from all faiths are invited to come in for silent prayer and observation of the building. Then, it was off to Huanaman's Tomb which is actually a series of interrelated buildings on a large site. India Gate, which we next visited, we discovered to be an inscribed memorial monument to the dead from India's armies and had soldiers guarding the eternal flame. Our last sightseeing stop was the large and spread out Lodi Gardens which were originally the site of an estate and still contain several architecturally impressive edifices. We wanted to eat a big and late lunch before setting off on the train to Jaisalmer, so the driver suggested Hot Chimney; it was a good suggestion and the very reasonably priced Indian food was great.

We'd been waiting to see the chaotic India we'd heard so much about, and finally as we drove through Old Delhi to the Old Delhi train station, we started to see this and the differences between the relatively calm and leafy newer Delhi and the crammed streets of Old Delhi.

Jaisalmer—

I planned 3 nights here just to rest and recuperate from our journey (and my husband was also recovering from an emergency hospitalization right before we left). That is pretty much what we did other than walking around, observing, and visiting the usual tourist spots. We decided we didn’t need to do a camel ride or go out to the desert.

Jodphur—

We visited the fort and wandered around (and got lost) in the maze that is the back streets in the old town. Our hotel was in the old town, so we spent quite a bit of time wandering around. Our second day here I’d planned to go out and do one of those visits to the Bishnoi areas, but then the agent who’d arranged our driver for us told me that this could easily be done on our way to our next stop—Fort Bhadrajan, so we spent another day just wandering around and observing daily life. Then, on the way out of Jodphur we stopped at all of the usual tourist Bishnoi spots—the potter’s, the rug workshop, and for the opium ceremony. In retrospect they were all too touristy for us and a waste of time because we got to see the real deal at some of our other stops.

Now, a few excerpts from the journal I tried to keep........

One night at Fort Bhadrajan—

Fort Bhadrajun is set in an intriguing location in the middle of a U shaped valley, obviously strategically located to stop invaders. The thakur (feudal lord) who owns it has opened it up to tourists to help support the expenses of running the place, and they must be extensive since there are numerous people (all men) who wait on guests hand and foot. As is traditional practice, we were greeted with a drum beat to announce our arrival. Then, garlands (fake) and a tikkal spot was placed on our foreheads. This whole set up seemed a tad artificial and fakey to us what with the announcement of our arrival. We were given a room upgrade to a fantastic room with hand-painted decorations, stained glass and all surfaces decorated. Today the palace/fort/castle is basically set aside as two parts. Guests stay in the area or wing that formerly was the men's area, and the thakkur and his family live in the former women's quarters. Overall, I'd classify the place as shabbily genteel and can understand why it must cost a small fortune to maintain, especially with all of the retainers around. We were a tad uncomfortable with the constant hovering and attention. As the only guests (something that turned out to be a constant theme in the trip) there were at times five or six people watching us as we ate and wondering whether we needed anything else.

Our time there was totally orchestrated with constant activities. We signed on for the late afternoon and evening adventure. We piled in a jeep and first set out to a small Bishnoi-type village to a household that has fifteen children. Then we visited the local Jain temple and learned that the Jains are typically quite wealthy because they are businessmen and can afford to build new, large beautiful temples like this. It was getting on towards sunset, so we set off further into the countryside where we climbed a sand dune and had tea while we watched the sunset over the hills. After the sun had set we drove to a Hindu temple set up in the hills. There we observed the evening aarti ceremony. Both the driver and the guide were devout Hindus and fully participated in the ceremony. It was definitely fascinating, but we wished the guides had taken the time to brief us on what this was all about because we did not understand anything about what was going on. In their rush to take us to all of the places, they neglected to do any explanations.

When we returned to the hotel, the thakkur joined us for drinks before dinner, and he told us how his family had been awarded the local villages and land nearly three centuries ago after helping the local maharajah to win a battle.

After breakfast the next morning we opted to take another tour of the local village and to see the district hospital which is located in this village. They were quite proud to show off their hospital and new ambulance; there are two doctors, three nurses and several midwives on staff. Let's just say that we should all be more grateful for the medical facilities we so take for granted. Our next stop was the local private high school which serves both day students and is also a boarding school. Classrooms were packed with students, and there were none of the extra classroom accoutrements so common in US schools. Yet, they proudly showed off their physics and chemistry labs which looked as though they did the job well, and students were self-disciplined enough that they were faithfully studying their notes for upcoming physics exams. And, they have three or four older computers in a lab so students can all learn computer skills.

2 days at Fort Dhamli--

After the completely full-service, rather formal and carefully orchestrated production that went on at Fort Bhadrajun, the reception at Fort Dhamli couldn't have been more different or more lowkey. Fort Dhamli is a one story house entered around a courtyard, and its guest rooms seem to have been more recently remodeled. The thakkur himself came out to greet us wearing a polo shirt, old cords and a beat up leather hat. He is the feudal lord of 12 different villages that were ceded to his family about three hundred years ago. Here we got fresh flower garlands and our wrists were tied with a special bracelet for good fortune. After lunch we kind of looked at each other and wondered what in the world we were going to do there for two nights since the place was so low key, but we soon became very busy.

In late afternoon we were taken for a walk around the local village and shown into various homes where the people seemed quite open and glad to have us visit because Inder, the owner, is quite obviously highly respected in the village. Even within a small village like this—about 2000 inhabitants—there were stark differences in the lives and opportunities the residents have. The very poor area of the village where the untouchables live together was bare bones, stark poverty whereas there were several very fancy new house in town that have been built by the Jains. Once again we heard the same common theme that the Jains are the wealthy business people (originally from the merchant caste, the third from the top) and are able to afford some of these more elaborate houses. When walking around we also learned that 90% of the people who live in rural India do not have any toilets in their homes. The government is trying to remedy this situation by giving people the equivalent of $100 to install a toilet, but the problem is that the cheapest toilet is around $400. While strolling through the town on our own the next day we came upon a dead end street that was so full of piles of excrement that it obviously was the toilet for local residents.

We were told that although there is always something interesting going on in the village, we'd picked a fortuitous time to visit since there would be two different celebrations during our stay. The first celebration was for the birth of a baby boy. He was turning one year old, and this was the occasion for a major celebration with a large number of guests—about 250--coming to join in the festivities; we too were welcomed as honored guests. But, since this is a society with the traditional separation of the sexes, our roles were different. I was sent off to join the women and introduced to Inder's 24 year-old daughter who is to be married in June in an arranged marriage because she told me her family does not believe in love marriages. She has met the groom for half an hour and seems very satisfied with her family's choice of a groom for her because he s a good catch—a doctor in Mumbai. So, I hung out with the women for a while chatting and admiring the baby.

The musicians appeared and first came to the women's quarters; some men, including my husband and Inder, joined the women to hear the musicians and to see the women dance. It is like a dollar dance in that the woman gives 10 rupees to the musicians, first waving the bills over their heads for good fortune and to show respect. When the musicians had played for the women, they moved on over into the men's tent area; I went back to our room at this point. My husband meanwhile had been invited to the men's area where he was offered some Indian booze which apparently was flowing quite freely. When we went to bed, we shut our room up and turned on the AC to drown out the noise from the party which went on into the early hours.

The next day was also special because the welcome party for the baby continued on again in the morning with another feast and the opium ceremony. In certain parts of India opium is traditionally used at special life events and ceremonies. The celebration of the birth of a boy is one of these special events, and there were probably about 100 men gathered sitting on the floor in the men's tented off area. Traditionally opium was also used prior to battle because it made men strong and courageous and also stopped blood from flowing as freely and even caused constipation (apparently a good thing if you are going to be in battle). All of these are characteristics that were needed by the warrior. The opium ceremony is conducted by several holy men and elders from the area; all men partake in the ceremony as a part of the pledge to each other and the community. Even though I felt very awkward as the only woman in the area, I too was briefly invited in to observe and partake in the ceremony. The opium is highly diluted with water and the put into a special container. The holy man pours a bit into his hands and then the honoree has it poured in to his hands and drinks the opium water. I stayed briefly before escaping back to the women's area. But, I can now say I've used a controlled substance. And, yes, opium is technically illegal in India too, but it is allowed for special religious or tribal type ceremonial use like this is. The festivities ended with the band leading the guests in a procession through town, dropping various people off at their homes.

An hour or so later, we heard music, and it was the band of male dancers who were coming with their special costumes with bells attached to their legs and holding sequined umbrellas to do the special dances to herald the coming of Holi, the spring harvest festival. These dancers also performed for the women first before moving on to the men’s area. The middle of the day was free for us to do our own thing, but in late afternoon we drove out to Inder's farm where he had cows, Marwat horses, goats, sheep and also raised crops. Two families work his land for him on a share crop basis. He gets 75% of the profits because it is his land and machinery, and they get the other 25% of the profit.
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Old Apr 5th, 2012, 05:11 PM
  #10  
 
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Thanks for pausing to answer my questions, you gave me exactly the kind of information I needed.

I'm enjoying this report of a different kind of trip to India. We did an unusual first trip to India in 2010, and got 10 year visas in anticipation of returning. We are still researching where in India might be next for us.
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Old Apr 5th, 2012, 09:20 PM
  #11  
 
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Great start to your report. Fascinating to read your take on the rural parts of the country. They are much calmer and less crowded, and so nicer to deal with. The problem i have, and most travellers have, is dealing with lower level of hotel facilities, toilet facilities, and restaurants etc. But you seemed to handle it all in stride.

Good observation noticing differences between Old Delhi & New Delhi. While all of India is congested...too many people...old parts of a city are much more faded, dirty, and congested.

We enjoyed Jaiselmer too. Small town with forts and temples and we found a great restaurant too. We drove (car and driver) from Jaiselmer to Jodhpur, and saw how they are converting the desert into farmland...irrigation from tube wells using solar power to run the water pumps which bring the water up from underground.

I am enjoying your report....yes, you are not doing the usual 4 or 5 star hotel trip or the typical backpacker trip (which is not done on this forum).
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Old Apr 5th, 2012, 09:55 PM
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Is that so, magical? I thought this forum was for ALL travellers...LOL!!!! And what is a "typical backpacker trip?" I've travelled with some who could buy and sell most folks and the common thread I hear is "why would I stay somewhere where people like me stay?"...such an interesting question, don't you think? Hilarious comment!!!
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Old Apr 6th, 2012, 04:43 AM
  #13  
 
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Yes, do tell, magical. All my trips over the past ten years, except the last, I've carried a backpack. Are you now telling me I shouldn't have posted here and no Fodorites should have read my TRs?
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Old Apr 6th, 2012, 07:02 AM
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Surely you recognize the distinction between a descriptive statement and a directive. Not many travelers on Fodor's describe staying in hostels in India. Magical isn't turning backpackers away, they just don't come here. That's our loss.

Admit it, thursday. You're no longer a backpacker, you're a flashpacker.
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Old Apr 6th, 2012, 08:01 AM
  #15  
 
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My, oh my....are we getting too sensitive!!

I know some backpackers who are doctors, and I have met some wealthy backpackers during my travel. I am just referring to the common perception that backpackers are minimalists, which some would say is a good thing. They stay , mostly, in hostels etc which is not the kind of reviews we see on this forum. That's all.

Thank you, Marija, for getting it right. No, I am not turning any backpackers away from this forum. In fact, their opinions elicit a good variety of recommendations for hotels and restaurants that we would not get otherwise. And who wants to eat at 5 star restaurants all the time.

But, let's face it, the backpackers on this forum, are not the typical backpacker that we think of....usually, students on no budget, sharing hostel space or hitching a ride between towns (even in India), and free to switch plans as they go. We met a few like that on our recent trip to India. Personally, I do miss the ability to travel carefree, with the freedom to change and switch plans as we went along. Sorry thursdaysd, but you would not classify yourself as a basic backpacker anymore.

Now, back to the report from julies. Sorry. didn't mean to hijack your TR.
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Old Apr 6th, 2012, 08:31 AM
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What an interesting TR. You seem to have suceeded in seeing some of the less travelled parts of India and I'm enjoying going along for the ride. Looking forward to the rest of your report.
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Old Apr 6th, 2012, 09:20 AM
  #17  
 
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I'm loving this report. We too kept waiting for the culture shock, but didn't find the smells and sites to be as offensive as many purport. (not to say that we didn't find India to be as fascinating as we had hoped). Our traveling style is much like yours and I enjoyed reading your comments that you realize that you consider yourselves midrange, rather than budget travelers. We felt the same way - budget hotels in India are not the way to go, but the midrange accommodations were all fine and usually quite nice.

I am hoping you had time to explore Gwalior. It is a place rarely mentioned, but it was one of our highlights.

Waiting for more.
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Old Apr 6th, 2012, 10:58 AM
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I am following along - we'd like to spend more time in rural India after 2 short visits there and this will be a helpful guide. Thanks so much for posting with so much detail.
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Old Apr 6th, 2012, 11:38 AM
  #19  
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Before I go into any more of my report, I want to clarify a couple things. When I said that the women from Delhi told us that a lot of that Kuamon area is basically the same for people who want rest and relaxation, I should have said that this refers only to those more isolated, out-of-the-way resorts or retreats. Those are basically a variation on the same theme. The towns are all different, with some being, IMO, much more interesting and worthwhile than others.

Secondly, quality of lodging in rural areas. The heritage places in Rajasthan are the homes of those with "royal" backgrounds. Obviously, some of these people now have more money than others, but if travelers can't find this level of lodging acceptable, I have no idea what their standards are or what they are looking for in lodging. OTOH, if you are someone who needs/wants modern, cookie-cutter, business hotel 4* or 5* establishments, they are few and far between in the rural areas of India. We also found some very nice resort- type places in the foothills that I think would be acceptable to most people.

As far as all of the places we stayed, IMO, most people (those who are looking for clean, comfortable, good location and some ambience) would be fine in any of the places that we paid $60 or more for. I'll admit that I can only remember 1 or 2 places that had hair dryers, and some of them had some kind of quirky plumbing due to the vintage of the lodging, but this is what makes place memorable to us rather than same old, same old of a standard hotel. If we wanted to, we could easily choose to pay more for lodging and get standard, generic, business class lodging, but this has absolutely no appeal to us. I guess it all depends on what you consider necessity. IMO, people who want to travel and experience all that different countries have to offer should be willing to loosen up a bit and try something a little bit out of their comfort zone. One of the places we stayed, and which was really nice for a totally out in the boonies retreat, had bucket showers. This was actually kind of fun and certainly wasn't they type of roughing it some of you seem so hesistant to try. They brought a huge plastic bucket of steaming water to my bathroom, and then I diluted it with the colder water from the shower taps. You sit on a little plastic stool in the shower area, and there is a scooping pitcher to use to scoop out the hot water from the larger bucket. Pour pitchers of the water on yourself, soap up or shampoo up, continue pouring water over yourself. Finish up by dumping all of the rst of the water in the larger bucket over yourself. It really was nice.

Now, back to the report:

Ramnagar and Khumbalgar

I'd read about the temples at Ramnagar and huge fort at Khumbalgar, and I'd also read that the fort is surrounded by a nature reserve that offers the chance to do some hiking. So, I thought a one night stay here would be ideal so we could visit both places and have time to do some walking. Turns out that the nature reserve was basically a totally dried out semi-forested area which didn't particularly seem appealing for hiking. And, the fort itself—while definitely large—wasn't exactly what we had thought it would be either because it was quite set up for the standard tourist groups with chained fencing, dried out lawns, food stands etc. It was appealing for about two hours but not what we'd anticipated.

We began the day by visiting the temple complex at Ramnagar which was very well-touristed with many people arriving at noon just as we did. The main temple was large and lovely with smaller enclosed shrines set around a main area with the largest shrine. The carving was gorgeous and the temple itself was a nice place to visit for about an hour. After this we headed off in the direction of the fort, stopping for a snack along the way so that we'd not be at the fort in the peak of the middle of the day heat.

That day my husband had come down with chills and a fever and so by the time when we arrived at our hotel it was fine that all we needed was a light supper and a place to sleep. By later on the next day he'd recovered, but I had come down with a bad case of diarrhea—so bad I eventually started on a course of the zithromax the travel clinic had given us. Our conclusion about our illnesses: My husband got the chills and fever from his opium water, and I got the diarrhea from my taste of it.

We hadn't been all that thrilled with the food we'd had at this pretty basic hotel the night before for dinner, so we decided to skip breakfast there the next morning and instead stopped after we'd been on the road for a while. We had a nice breakfast at Maharani Bagh (close to the temple complex) which seemed to have lovely grounds in a beautiful setting; we'd definitely stay there if in the area again.

Castle Bera

When we'd been planning our trip we'd thought about visiting this area which is well-known for its possibilities for leopard sightings. There are two brothers from the same feudal family that has controlled this area for centuries, and we researched and debated which place to stay at. We definitely made the right choice for those people who want to be involved in a wildlife activity that involves a property owner who chooses to study animals and their habits and to learn more about the area's wildlife.

We went on four different safaris—two night for leopard spotting and two morning to see local birdlife and other large animals—crocodiles and a jackal. The thakkur--owner of the castle/large house--told us he shot his first leopard before he was even teen-aged but decided forty years ago that it is pointless to shoot these creatures. Instead, he decided to learn to observe their daily habits and to track their activities. He knows their dens, routines, which ones are paired, which ones have cubs etc. so he can nearly guarantees sightings to his guests. We were not disappointed, and both nights we went on safari did see leopards during our jeep rides. He was disconcerted when we did not have a similar sighting when we went out during the day with some of his men for a dawn safari. Normally we are not huge fans of extremely arid areas such as this is, but the jeep rides took us into some extremely gorgeous and varied countryside with small lakes for numerous bird sightings and some viewing of some very large crocodiles.

Castle Bera is a true nature lover's destination. This contrasts with the operation run by his brother at Leopard's Lair. Our second night, when we were out on safari, we saw how that operation relies on baiting to guarantee that guests will have a leopard sighting. On our way back to the “castle” we came across a group of stopped jeeps waiting around a spotlit area. His brother purchases a young goat (cost about $30) and hobbles it tightly so it can't move and then ties it out in an area known to be frequented by a couple of the local leopards. We stopped with the rest of the jeeps for a few minutes to observe what we considered to be an atrocity. Sure enough, the leopard came up and started stalking the helpless young goat. Then, it made its attack jumping on the goat's jugular area and severing its head which it walked off with. But, apparently this is only the beginning of the evening's show for Leopard's Lair's guests because the leopard keeps coming back to finish off its “kill” so guests are guaranteed numerous sightings of the same animal. Our group left in disgust at people who are involved in this type of scenario.

In addition to having extremely interesting and worthwhile safaris, Castle Bera also is a great place to stay. We were given a huge, huge suite with dressing room and sitting area. Plus, outside there are numerous places to sit around. The owner likes to sit around and drink with his guests and my husband thinks part of the reason he does the guest thing to have a constant supply of people to party with. His is the most extensive and varied private bar I have ever seen. And, unlike every other place we'd been, alcoholic drinks are included because the owner doesn't want to hassle keeping track of the drink orders to charge guests for them. All in all, this was one of our favorite places on our trip. And, the contrast to this is especially what made our next stop such a nightmare. To be continued.........
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Old Apr 6th, 2012, 12:16 PM
  #20  
 
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We loved the heritage properties we stayed in on our trip to Sikkim. Castle Bera sounds great... Leopard's Lair not so.
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