Trip Report: India Travelawg

Old Feb 22nd, 2009, 05:20 PM
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Trip Report: India Travelawg

Returned in January from a wander through North India and Kathmandu, Nepal. Before I plunge into my travel stories (which will take quite some time, as I'm overwhelmed at work right now) here are the logistics. We made all arrangements on our own, and with the immense help of this forum!!!, and did not use an agency. It was a lot of work, but we think saved us thousands of dollars. We probably could have done some things better, and when you book yourself you take on all the risk, but for me its worth the freedom that comes with it. For the most part we were very pleased. We are looking forward to our next trip to India, at which time we will likely go south.

Airlines. We booked our tix in advance of our trip – while we were there, most of the airlines cut their rates and/or fuel surcharges pretty substantially, so these prices are probably inflated if you book on these airlines now:

Air France: Washington DC to Paris to Mumbai. Used points. No problems at all – fairly comfortable, half-way decent food and good wine. My only complaint was that the guy sitting next to me on the Paris to Mumbai leg was hacking and coughing during the entire flight – and you guessed it – even though I had taken airborne and avoided even looking in his direction, a week later I came down with the cold and spent the next several weeks in India trying to recover. It didn’t deter me from enjoying myself though.

Jet: Khajuraho to Varanasi. About $100 pp, booked through Travelocity.co.in. Excellent service checking us in at Khajuraho. Not as roomy as some of the other Indian domestics, but like the other domestic airlines, managed to feed us an entire meal during the short flight.

Indian Airlines: Varanasi to Kathmandu. A bit expensive IMO - about $166 pp. This was the only flight I could not book online – had to get it ticketed by a travel agent. Not as professional at the gate as they could have been. Seats were roomy – maybe because the aircraft was a bit old -- and the flight was perfectly fine, even though I had braced myself for a miserable experience, based on some of the comments I’ve read about Indian. It was great being able to fly direct to Kathmandu from Varanasi. If you decide to do this, keep in mind that it doesn’t fly every day – something like every other day.

JetLite: Kathmandu to Delhi. $117 booked on travelocity.co.in. This is Jet’s budget carrier – it was fine – again the seats on Jet flights aren’t as roomy. We had selected seats ahead of time to find out upon arrival at the airport that they were reassigned. Upon a diplomatic complaint, the gate agent was nice enough to find us seats on the side of the plane we requested (great views of the Himalayas). Unfortunately, we were delayed in Kathmandu for about 5 hours, and stuck seated in the mass waiting room, which just about drove me around the bend, but eventually we got to Delhi.

Kingfisher: Delhi to Mumbai. $141 booked on Travelocity.co.in. As many here have commented, this is a jewel of an airline. This is the airline that proves the benefits of capitalism as they are obviously obsessed with offering the best, most competitive product. Superb curbside bag service, everything works like clockwork. Comfortable flight with loads of amenities – super efficient service, great in-flight entertainment system, good food, etc., etc. I wish we had been able to use them for all our domestic flights. Next time for sure.

Continental: Mumbai to Newark to Washington DC. Used points. First/Business wasn’t as good as some other carriers, but it was fine. Seats could be a bit more comfortable and flatter on extension, but who am I to complain – flying in first you can actually sleep and arrive feeling somewhat human after 17 hours in the air. Food was okay – nothing special, but we had excellent and very friendly in-flight service.

Trains:

Mumbai to Ahmedabad overnight train. $32.50 pp 1A. Booked on irctc.co.in, which took a couple of tries, but eventually worked. Three of us in a 4-person berth. We were joined by an older Indian gentleman, Mr. V. Patel, who was back in India after having lived in New Jersey, USA, for many years. He was a great conversationalist – we had thought about booking the whole compartment, but were glad we didn’t as we would have missed out on conversing with this pleasant and knowledgeable man. Train was clean enough and we actually did get some rest.

Agra to Jhansi. AC chair class. Can’t remember exactly what we paid, but it was less than $20 pp. Our driver suggested that we do this, as he said the road was very rough between these cities. Booked on irctc.co.in from the hotel in Agra and it worked on my first try. There were very few people on this train, which was filthy – lots of “wildlife” on board! The driver met us in Jhansi with our luggage, so it worked out fine – probably better than the road trip would have been.

Car companies:

Rajasthan 4-Wheel drive, http://www.fourwheeldriveindia.com/ Drove us for about 3 weeks from Ahmedabad through Rajasthan to Kajuraho. Very reasonable rates, IMO. We opted for a Toyota Innova van, which was clean and well-equipped. We had one bad glitch with this company (story to follow), but they went out of their way to correct it. Our driver, Ramesh Meena, was excellent. He was a very skilled driver, who kept up the pace but took no unreasonable risks, was very knowledgeable – which saved us tons of time and possible aggravation, friendly and funny, professional, and hospitable. More on him later.

State Express in Delhi – had to fire this company. Lots of problems. Don’t use them unless you can’t find anyone else.

Kumar Taxi – my post has been removed regarding my experience with this company for some unknown reason. While others have used this company with success, I had a problem with them pulling a reservation for a car in Delhi after I decided not to use them for the longer portion of my trip.

Hotels (tried to stay at least 3 nights in each location – there were a few that we stayed in just 1 or 2 nights, which I generally find too exhausting to do too much of on a long trip):

Mumbai: Hotel Suba Palace. http://www.hotelsubapalace.com/about.htm right on Apollo Bunder in Colaba, a very short walk to the Gateway of India. Location was fantastic. We originally had hoped to stay at the Taj Mahal Palace, but discovered (with dogster’s help) that two rooms for three nights were going to cost a fortune. As it turned out, we wouldn’t have been able to stay there anyway, because of the terrorist attacks. Our next choice was Gordon House, which is right next door to Hotel Suba Palace, but unfortunately it was full for our dates (though later it occurred to me we probably should have asked if they had any cancellations). So we ended up staying at Hotel Suba Palace. Triple room cost $121 per night. The room was basic, but clean. Bathroom was functional, but that’s about all. Breakfast was included – not the most luxurious, but plenty of food and eatable. We had a problem upon check out using our AMEX card – they told us their AMEX machine wasn’t working. This was the first time we were told that story – it took us twice to finally realize that some hotels will advertise that they take AMEX, but in reality, I think they don’t really want to take it because they probably have to pay a higher fee, so they tell you their machine isn’t working. The third time this was tried with us (which happened at a Taj property), I told them that was the only card I carried and they called it in and took an imprint of the card. I wanted to use AMEX over Visa because conversion fee on my AMEX was 2 percent, while Visa was charging 3 percent.

Udaipur: Jagat Niwas Palace http://www.jagatniwaspalace.com/index.html. We paid $58/double lakefront room. Lovely place – excellent location. We had a spacious room with a reading alcove. Bathroom was decent. Beds were a bit hard (as they are in most hotels in India). We ate in their rooftop restaurant, which had nice view of the lake palace and the food was pretty good.

Jodhpur: Ratan Vilas www.ratanvilas.com. We had 2 rooms, one single and one double and it cost something like $110 per night for both rooms. The location is a little bit out of town, but that wasn’t a problem for us as we had the car. We enjoyed the quiet atmosphere. The service is very good – they are low key, but very helpful and friendly. The room was lovely with antique furnishings – very spacious. The bathroom was fantastic. Ate there a few times and the food was quite good. Overall it was a very enjoyable property.

Jaisalmer: Shahi Palace Hotel. $44/double. We stayed our first night in this backpacker- type hotel, but moved because we felt it had been oversold to us – the rooms were small, the bathrooms abysmal, and the place was extremely noisy. It was suggested to me by the driver that perhaps their reviews on some advisor websites may be self-created. Don’t know if that is true, and maybe I was oversensitive because the cold I caught from a fellow passenger on the way over was in full bloom, but all I wanted was some rest and couldn’t get it. We heard every person coming into and leaving the hotel, late into the night returning from camel safaris and early in the morning leaving for camel safaris – heard the desk clerks talking as if they were in our room, and there were dog fights and pigeon wars going on just outside our windows. Had there been no screen in the bathroom window, the pigeon hostilities would have been going on in our room. It was also cold – I had to ask for extra blankets – and the pillow was as thin and as comfortable as cardboard. I will say the rooftop restaurant/lounge has a great view of the fort, especially at sunset (food not so great), but that did not make up for the rest of the issues we had with the place, so we moved to:
Taj Rawalkot: thegatewayhotels.com/index.htm?hotelId=TJSARK&page=Overview
They gave us what I thought was a great price $55/night (especially since the neighboring Hotel Rajwada quoted us a ridiculous price and we heard that though the hotel is very pretty, the rooms are nothing special). It was a bit out of town, again no problem as we had a car available. Rooms had nice furnishings and the beds were extremely comfortable. Bathrooms were very nice – plenty of amenities. Breakfast was included and was quite good. Also ate dinner here one night and it was fair. The hotel courtyards were peaceful and there was a great view of the fort from the pool area – a nice place to sit and relax with a drink. Best part: it was quiet!!

Bikaner: Hotel Lallgarh Palace. http://www.lallgarhpalace.com/ Impressive palace made into a heritage hotel. Paid about $120/double. Our room was large, as was the bathroom, and very quiet. We enjoyed exploring the palace and found the billiard room and the bar to be quite impressive with the former maharajah’s hunting trophies hanging on the walls (if you are a PETA member, avoid these rooms at all costs!) We ate in the courtyard restaurant one night – which was pretty good. Our complaint with this place was that we exchanged some money and found out a couple of days later that they slipped us a bad 1000 Rs note. When we called them (our driver offered to take it back to them on his next visit to the city), they refused to take responsibility for it – and I understand why – how could we prove it was them who gave it to us? Still, it left a bad taste in our mouths as the driver told us that they had to have known they were giving us a bad bill – and we were unsuspecting tourists who would not know what to look for.

Mandawa: Castle Mandawa Hotel. http://www.mandawahotels.com/ about $120/double. Also a fun place to stay and explore, though the website photos look a lot better than in person -- the place is a bit worn looking, though still comfortable. We had a great set of adjoining rooms with good bathrooms in the old section of the hotel. Temple music starts early in the morning, which is a bit annoying if you are trying to sleep – I will say that after a while in India, you learn to sleep though it. We ate dinner in the hotel restaurant one night – they have a set menu – and it was good, but I found it a bit claustrophobic, as the somewhat surly waiters perch around your table watching your every move. Location was excellent – easy walk into town and near the painted havelis in Mandawa.

Jaipur: Umaid Bhawan http://www.umaidbhawan.com $95/triple including breakfast. Staff is spectacularly unhelpful and sullen, but the room was spacious and comfortable – good beds and nice sitting area. Bathroom was fine, though you could hear a buzz from the electrical closet next door – which turned out to be fairly annoying at night. Breakfast was sufficient and served on the rooftop terrace. Location was a bit far from the sites, again no problem if you have a car.

Agra: Taj View. tajhotels.com/Leisure/Taj%20View%20Hotel,AGRA/rooms.asp
$224 triple including breakfast. Had a very nice room – modern and very comfortable. Even though we had one of the best rooms in the hotel, with supposedly one of the best views of the Taj Mahal, it was so foggy while we were in Agra, that we saw only whiteness out of our window. Breakfast was excellent – probably the best of our trip. My DH and DD ate in the restaurant at the hotel one night and said it was excellent.

Orchha: Amar Mahal. http://www.amarmahal.com/amarmahal.htm $143/suite with extra bed. Breakfast was not included, but we ended up not being charged for it for an unknown reason – didn’t notice till later. This is a very nice property. We had a huge room with antique furnishings and a bathroom almost as big as the room. We enjoyed relaxing with drinks in the pretty garden courtyard. Breakfast was okay. Dinner was also okay, but the service in the restaurant was not the best. Location was good and the hotel had some good views of the cenotaphs. This is the 2nd place that told us upon checkout that their credit card machine wasn’t working – not just the AMEX, but any credit card, so we were told we had to pay cash. We were totally unprepared to fork over so much cash, but managed to just eek it out, leaving us completely cashless. (If we had thought of it, we would have tried to use the bad 1000 Rs note, but DH had stuck that in the back of his wallet, hoping to take it to a bank later to see if we could redeem it and we had forgotten about it!) BTW, there was an ATM in town.

Khajuraho: Taj Chandela $202/triple including breakfast. tajhotels.com/Leisure/Hotel%20Chandela,KHAJURAHO/default.htm This property struck us as being straight out of the seventies. We had a very nice 2-room suite with both a balcony and a large private terrace. Beds were very comfortable. The bathroom was small, but nice, with lots of amenities. Breakfast was good with a nice selection. One night we ate outside in the BBQ restaurant – endless meat kabobs of every type, including, surprisingly, beef. We were entertained with musicians and a private puppet show, which was fun. It was very cold that night, so the staff surrounded us with hibachi-style fires. This is the third place that told us their AMEX credit card machine wasn’t working, but by now I had caught on and told them, much to their chagrin, that they could call it in and take an imprint (they are a Taj property, after all!), which they did.

Varanasi: A Palace on River http://www.palaceonriver.com/load.htm 2 deluxe river rooms $68/night each. This place is basic, but clean. It is really the best location for staying on the Ganges – nice views out the front hotel windows, with parrots and monkeys hanging out in the trees outside. The staff was very nice and quite helpful. We pretty much ate all our meals here in the upstairs, which was good and the staff up there was very friendly. I was looking forward to meeting the famous Bruno, of dogster fame, but I am sorry to report that I was told he was in the dog hospital with a leg ailment. We had a very good stay here.

Kathmandu: Hotel Courtyard in Thamel area. http://www.hotelcourtyard.com/ $115/ junior suite. This place has recently been taken over by Pujan and Michelle, who are working hard to make it a boutique hotel, and are succeeding by all counts. (Pujan’s family built the hotel as a home, and it had been subsequently made into a guesthouse). They were kind enough to give our DD her own room, which of course, was a wonderful gift. The rooms were nicely decorated and had great comforters and the most inviting pillows. Michelle and Pujan treat you like family friends and it was fun to talk to them and hang out in the hotel’s public spaces. Michelle had just managed to find soft and fluffy bath towels the first day we were there, and that was a thrill. Breakfast was good, although the breakfast room was pretty cold. The power is turned off intermittingly for 12 hours a day in Kathmandu, and although the hotel has some limited generator service, they are working on getting one that will run the entire place during the frequent power outages. Location is excellent – in Thamel, but still quiet and peaceful.

Delhi: Delhi Bed and Breakfast. http://www.delhibedandbreakfast.com/ Approximately $80/double including breakfast. We enjoyed our stay in this lovely family home. Pervez, the owner, is a great conversationalist who goes out of his way to ensure his guests’ comfort and meet their needs. Breakfast is around a large table where you meet other guests and was a lot of fun. We found this house to be warm and welcoming and a great place to acclimate upon arrival in India, or as a last stop to enjoy Indian hospitality before you leave for home.

Tours:

Mumbai: http://www.realitytoursandtravel.com/sightstosee.html ($135 per person – lunch 200 Rs); Slum and sightseeing tour. We saw Slumdog Millionaire the night before we left on our trip (back when it was only in a few theaters and not yet an Oscar contender) – and that gave us a perfect way to prepare ourselves for the disparities in India. Just a day later we were walking though the slum where the film was made – and it gave us a much better understanding of slum life, the incredible micro-commerce that operates there, and the community that the slum encompasses. The guys that run this thing are trying to make a go of it and do some work in the community, but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of evidence of results. However, I found the tour to be worthwhile and well run. More on that later.

Mumbai: http://www.beyondbombay.in/index.html ($3500Rs per person includes car and driver, refreshments and entry to some places). We ended up not taking this tour, which was advertised to us as a Bollywood tour. I link it because they were good at communicating with us and seemed very professional. What we wanted most was to either get into Film City or into a shoot or production house, which they said they would try to do, until the week before we left, when they wrote and said they weren’t going to be able to manage it. They did offer us a tour where they would show clips of Bollywood movies inside the van while you are at the place they were filmed, and also take you past some homes of stars and to places where the stars hang out, but that really didn’t interest us so much. We tried contacting numerous organizations to find an actual Bollywood tour, but never did find one. We did have a Bollywood experience, which I will tell you about shortly . . .

Amedabad: http://www.egovamc.com/Heritage/home.asp a few dollars a person. This organization runs walking tour of old Ahmedabad, which we enjoyed. Very interesting and informative.

Before I start relating my India vignettes, let me just say that, like others, I found India to be a place of irreconcilable contrasts. I am at ease just about any place, and I am intrigued and comfortable with other cultures and languages, but India is a place where you are truly stripped of your everyday thinking and comforts. I expected that somehow I would go to India, directly experience it and come back with an understanding of it, a kind of possession of it. But India is indefinable -- you instead come back with even more curiosity, daydreams, and layers of oddly romantic notions. At home, I spend my days working in a bureaucratic job, a legal job, in which I attempt to force people to change their behavior. It was wonderful to be in a place where I couldn’t force or control anything, no matter how hard I might try. I loved the feeling of being thrust into chaos and discomfort. And a great thing about this country is that you can be in the most uncomfortable adventurous place, but turn around and enjoy the most luxurious hotel – and you can seek out and find the most delightful treats (like a clean western toilet, LOL). Usually when I travel, I find that the reality of the place diminishes my imagination of it. In India, the reality of the place increased my imagination. And, I can’t wait to go back. Please enjoy my stories. I’m not the most talented writer and sometimes I get a bit long-winded and detailed, but I hope that doesn’t detract from expressing to you the excitement I experienced from a trip to a most incredible country. India.
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Old Feb 22nd, 2009, 05:21 PM
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Mumbai: 26/11 and Reality.

We arrived in Mumbai just a few days after the horrid terrorist attacks. We were urged by family, friends and colleagues all not to take the trip. In fact some even accused us of being voyeurs! We decided that we were not going to let the terrorists scare us off – the horse was already out of the barn -- so what was there to be afraid of? One friend forwarded us an article that said two of the terrorists weren’t caught and they were still roaming the city hunting for westerners. I reminded this friend that there are over 13 million people in Mumbai, figure the odds! As it turned out, the odds were closer to us than we expected. The father of one of DD’s university pals, who is from Mumbai, was shot in the attack. He was at the Oberoi having dinner with some friends when the gunmen came in and opened fire. His friends were killed, but he got lucky and was only grazed by a couple of bullets. He hid under a pile of bodies for a day and a half, until it finally became safe to leave. We were in touch with DD’s friend, AP, who had flown back to Mumbai to be with her dad, so we also knew that the city was under control before we were to arrive. I am happy to report that he is doing fine, obviously missing his friends, but with true Indian strength of character, back to work. We met up with AP while we were in Mumbai --- more on that in a bit.

We arrived at BOM at about 2 o’clock in the morning. While we were filling out our immigration forms, DD’s pen exploded and left a huge black blot over her passport number. We couldn’t find any blank forms, so we approached passport control expecting a problem. No, the officer just stamped her passport and paperwork without even a blink and we were in India. Apparently, there is much to be done with security. After retrieving our baggage and exchanging some dollars into Rupees (48.8 Rs. to $1!) we exited the airport into . . . chaos! Ah . . . incredible India! It was exactly what I was longing for – pure sensory stimulation – even more shocking to the system after 17 hours of boring flights and airline meals. Assailed by new smells, we walked the gauntlet lined with taxi drivers, touts, signs, waiting family members, a din of chatter, shouting, horns – a crush of people all looking for someone or something. We located our name on one of the signs and met our ride to the hotel. (Upon arrival to a new airport, it is always worth the money to have arranged car pickup – its no fun to try to find taxis, communicate and worry about having the correct money when you are exhausted and want to just drop your bags and lay flat!) The driver took our cart of luggage and steered it and us toward his car in the crumbling parking lot. Dogs and cats wandered by, scavenging for whatever the arriving passengers and hawkers have left behind. I never saw so many taxis and auto rickshaws in my life. Thousands of black and yellows – old fiat-looking models, now converted to run on natural gas – not one newer than 25 or 30 years old. They say Mumbai has 60,000 taxis – and I think they were all at the airport when we arrived.

After an hour ride from north Mumbai to South Mumbai, and a ride around “the queen’s necklace,” the street lights looking like her string of pearls, we arrived in Colaba at the Hotel Suba Palace. We were immediately escorted to our room and collapsed into bed for a 4-hour sleep until our guide would arrive at 8:30. After a quick breakfast of masala chai, veg patties and toast, we wandered outside the hotel to find our tour guide. Ganesh, a slight and very young-looking man (and who did not actually have an elephant head) introduced himself to us and escorted us to the jeep that would take us on our “reality’ tour around Mumbai.

First point of interest was a children’s “traffic park” – a small park filed with traffic signal lights, signs and even small cars for children to learn how to drive and all about highway safety . . . ingenious, except that there are no camel carts, or trucks bearing down on you, or herds of goats or sheep, cows, or throngs of people . . . Perhaps they also need these parks for adult drivers . . . Right next door was a “study park” built for street children to have a place to read and study – with plenty of light, chairs and surfaces to write on – and bathrooms even. Hard to believe, but even some homeless children go to school – and they need a place to study. Just up the road we pass by small concrete structures with missing window glass under some railway bridges that we are told used to be run as homes for street boys. The small structures would house about 150 boys who would sleep on the floor. During the day, they would find ways to make money and go there to sleep at night. The government provided them with free medical care, but they would need to find a way to pay for their own medicine, if any of that makes sense. The shelters are closed right now for “renovation,” but it did not appear that anyone is working on them presently. From there we drove past the homes of “pavement dwellers.” Families build small shelters out of whatever they can find and literally live on the sidewalk. Babies and children play outside these tiny squalid homes, men shave and wash themselves in the street and mothers cook over small burners, whatever they can find or afford.

Next, we drive up Grant Road – one of the red light districts of Mumbai. Ganesh tells us that at one time there were 70-80,000 prostitutes in Bombay. The number is now supposedly reduced to 10,000 – and they are spread out all over the city, but many brothels are still run out of places on Grant Road. Sure enough, women and transvestites, and, sadly, children, in dirty saris with glaring red lipstick line the street. Prostitution is illegal in India, but the police, who either frequent the brothels, or who enjoy a nice payoff from the owners, basically close their eyes to it. The women are brought in from the countryside with a promise of a good job – the families are paid 20-30,000 Rs and the girls are resold to the brothels for 50-100,000 Rs, making a nice profit for the human traffickers. The girls have to pay the owners back if they want their freedom – an impossibility. They can’t run away, as they are watched closely by the pimps. It’s a human tragedy of immense proportions.

With these deep concerns on our minds, we leave the Grant Road area and travel up to the Dhobi Ghats – an open-air laundry with cement stalls where men are pounding the hell out of the garments of Mumbai’s poorer classes. Each evening they pick up garments from around the city, take them to the Dhobi Ghats and wash, beat and rinse the clothes and hang them dry – for abut 5 Rs per garment. The garments are tagged and separated by color – and after being washed and dried are returned to their owners the next evening. The washmen have been raised in the business, as the business has been passed down by families for over 100 years. After a walk by a very busy train station and a horse track, we find our jeep and head off to visit the Dharavi Slum.

Dharavi is called the “heart” of Bombay. It is huge – the largest slum in Asia. Its population is 1 million and consists of people who have come to Mumbai from all over India. The slum was built on top of a mangrove swamp and eventually was reinforced by the government to prevent it from sinking. The huts and buildings are made from everything imaginable and the place is criss-crossed with tiny alleys and roads – a maze through humanity. The slum dwellers appear very happy and its obvious have a strong sense of community. The place is a model of free market business, as all sorts of money-making enterprises – legal and illegal – are run out of Dharavi – and we are told that the slum is completely self-sustaining. We are greeted continually by looks of curiosity and smiles – small children get a thrill out of saying “hi” and shaking our hands – they seem to wander in the slum with no fear of any harm and are watched over by everyone. We first visit the huge recycling business. Scores of people go out into the city and pick through trash, looking for whatever items can be recycled. Plastics are separated out by color and strength – they are then crushed and washed and dragged up to the rooftops to dry out. We go up to see the drying process and stand on top of one of the rooftops where we can survey the vast stretch of the slum in every direction. The plastic is then made into strips – and eventually melted into blocks that are made into everything – buttons, toys, etc. We see men hand-stamping silk cloth with gold leaf. Then we come across a tiny factory making children’s clothes – men cutting, embroidering, sewing, ironing and packing the outfits for sale in the markets. Some of the workers look very young, but are happy and joking with each other in the small, dark room with just one window. They work furiously, as they are paid by the piece. (It is said there are 15,000 such single-room factories in Dharavi.) We see paint cans recycled – the old paint burned out (the workers have no masks or gloves!) and cans banged back into shape, cleaned and resold to the paint companies. Same for vegetable oil tins – fascinating to see the silver square tins stacked from floor to ceiling in row upon row. Women make papad – we watch them roll out the dough into circles, which they dry on baskets in the sun. We see a bakery that makes puff pastry – its packaged and shipped all over the city for morning breakfast – small factories making soaps for washing clothes and dishes – leather factories – some sewing wallets for Gucci – and a pottery area. Some of the earliest residents of Dharavi came from Gujarat and Rajasthan – folks who were and are masters of making clay from rice field dirt and forming it into pots that are sold all over the country. The living conditions here are horrible – open sewage ditches, one toilet for every 1500 residents and dirty water – but still more people come. Some come for ten years, work and go back to live very wealthy in their villages. Kids generally go to school, but many don’t and work instead – a travesty. The place is amazing – while even the most basic of human needs are lacking, technology reigns. You see extremely tiny ramshackle houses, rented for about 1000 Rs a month, with televisions and computers inside. Cell phones abound. The slum is a haven of industry. People have and make opportunities for themselves out of nothing. All in all, Dharavi is a very interesting and complex place – and it contains all the best and worst of human innovation and existence.

The rest of our afternoon consists of a tour of the popular sites of Mumbai: Mahalaxmi Temple, Haji Ali Mosque, the Banganga Tank (in bad shape after a tragedy last year where people threw so much stuff into the tank that it killed of all the fish – 3 huge trucks full of dead fish were taken out – it has been drained it and is under reconstruction), Malabar Hill, the Jain temple, the Parsi towers, and the Mavi Bhavan Museum, where Gandhi lived from 1917-1934. We return to the hotel exhausted with the hope of sleep and overcoming jet lag so we can now function on India time.

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Old Feb 22nd, 2009, 06:02 PM
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Thanks for a great report - I'm looking forward to more! So glad you fell for India.
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Old Feb 22nd, 2009, 07:14 PM
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Hey travelaw: what a great report so far: full of all the detail that people need. Well written too and interesting. Like thursday, I'm delighted that you entered into the spirit of the place [and that I could help just a little] I'm only sorry that you didn't meet the famous Bruno. Did the guys at the hotel remember the guest he dragged into the Ganges? heh.

Put all the detail you want in the reports - and never apologise for being long-winded - lordy, if there was a prize for that I would have won it years ago.

Bless you and write more. This is fascinbating.
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Old Feb 22nd, 2009, 10:11 PM
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Love your report. Feel like I can see everything you are describing.
Continue soon as I am waiting to take the tour with you.
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Old Feb 23rd, 2009, 01:46 AM
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"But India is indefinable -- you instead come back with even more curiosity, daydreams, and layers of oddly romantic notions"

This. Yes and yes and yes.

Wonderful report, thank you!
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Old Feb 23rd, 2009, 06:35 AM
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Fantastic report! I really appreciate how you organized all the details up front. The only thing lacking possibly is a description of who the "players" are; you and your family/traveling companions. You mention your DD (age?). Was it just you and her traveling?

And don't worry, most of us here love all the details you can dish out. The description of your first tour was great.
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Old Feb 23rd, 2009, 06:50 AM
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Fabulous report. Newbies like me need all the details we can get! I too have booked with Four Wheel Drive so I can't wait to see your review of them.
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Old Feb 23rd, 2009, 02:26 PM
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You LIKE me! You really LIKE me!

Sorry, still in Oscar mode. So great for India that Slumdog won. And I just loved A.R. Rahman's speech about choosing love over hate. Isn't that what it is really all about? The sincerity of the all the Slumdog folks was so refreshing in the face of the typical Hollywood self-importance. Good on 'em.

Now, back to the report. Really and sncerely, thank you all for the kind remarks.
Thursdaysd: I really DID fall for India. Hard. I've been listening to DVD's I bought there almost continuously. We've been eating Indian food at every opportunity, and, I've ordered up a bunch of Bollywood flicks. I've got it bad!
Dogster: Thanks for your blessings and really kind reaction. I'm sure I could never compete with your fabulous reports. Just look at the following you've been amassing on these boards! And, yes, you are remembered well in Varanasi. When I asked about Bruno, they wanted to know how I knew about him. I explained that he now had an international following because a former guest had enshrined him in his stories on the internet. They laughed hard and said, "oh yes, Mr. Dogster! We remember him well!" So, there you go. You remain solidly ensconced in their memories. You really have a knack for finding your way into folks' hearts, don't you? Its wonderful.
ileen and Amy: thanks so much for reading. Its so nice to be able to tell some travel stories and find people interested in hearing them. At home, I usually get half a sentence out and am cut off with "back to me!" Just love being able to share with you guys and know you are listening!
Kristina: The players are myself, my dear husband and my dear 21-year old daughter. She was originally going to bring along a friend on this trip, but the friend cancelled out just a few weeks before we left. I'm sure it was hard on DD, as who wants to spend all that time with your old fogey parents -- and I WAS a bit worried that she would want to divorce us, as dogster suggested she might when we were formalizing the plans on the forum -- but she is a trooper and we ended up having a wonderful time together. She is my daughter, so, naturally, I think the world of her, but she really IS a great person and lots of fun and I am blessed to have a really close and fantastic relationship with her.
msmango: you will see a bit later that we had a problem with 4WDR, but they passed the test and came through with fling colors, so I can absolutely recommend them. We had a very good driver in Ramesh Meena. And I mean a GOOD, safe driver. He is skilled. I drive a lot, as does my husband, and we were both very impressed with his abilities. If you get him I think you will like him.
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Old Feb 23rd, 2009, 02:32 PM
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More Mumbai:

After breakfast and checking email we walked down to the Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal – still standing tall, but roped off and boarded up from the last week’s terrorist attacks – and found the ticket office and paid 250 Rs each to ferry out to Elephanta Island. It was nice to get out on the water and look back at the skyline of Mumbai. We also passed a few Indian Navy ships parked out there – we were told not to take photos of them, but . . . ut . . . too late! After about an hour we arrived at Elephanta Island. We decided to walk up the long causeway – there was also a train, which we scoffed at – tiny little thing – but when it passed by us we realized we wish we were on it and out of the hot sun. Starting to feel a bit musky . . . After a walk through (yet another – they’re everywhere) tout gauntlet, we paid our 5 Rs tax and started climbing the long stairs up to the caves. Just one detour though – paid another 5Rs for the privilege of using toilets that didn’t flush and no running water in the sinks. At least we didn’t have to pee on the rocks by the causeway, which was being frequented by many Indian males. Lovely. Anyway, up the steps – more scoffing at the guy with the carrying chair – what idiot would ever take a chair instead of walking? Well, you guessed it – halfway up and still jet lagging, we were wishing we had chosen to take the chair. Pride goeth before a breathless slog up a long stairway. There were multiple stops on the way up, to the souvenir sellers' delight. Finally at the top, yet another fee, 250 Rs (for foreigners – 100 for Indians) and 25 Rs for video authority – but then you can’t actually take video inside the cave – well, never mind. The place was surrounded by nasty little monkeys – growling at us – and one eventually managed to steal DH’s Coke, poured it out on the pavement and slurped it up, and watched us watching him. Always watch your stuff around the monkeys!!!
The caves were interesting, though much had over time been destroyed. Still, we enjoyed a couple of hours wandering around. Found our way back to the boats and got into some deep discussions in broken English about the terrorist attacks with the boatmen and the chai wallas. They all expressed gratefulness that we were willing to come, as they had seen an almost complete falling off of the usual tourist crowd.

Back in Mumbai, we wandered over to another scene of the terrorist attacks, Leopold Café. Apparently, in a display of the defiant Indian spirit, the day after the attacks, the employees of Leopold’s went in and cleaned the place up and opened back up for business. The government, appalled, closed them back up again, as it was a crime scene. They were open again by the time we were in Mumbai, and the place was buzzing. The waiter, who was working at the time of the attacks, pointed out the bullet holes and with some melancholy, but remarkably absent tears, told us about his colleagues and clients who were shot. So sad. We were happy to make a donation to the victim’s fund. Dinner was pretty good – dal, rice, palak paneer, chicken tikka masala and mango ice cream. After dinner we walked along the Colaba Causeway – and then shopped for some necessities – a year’s worth of prescription meds for me, some extra tp, bottled water, and a hairdryer, so I don’t blow out the power at the hotel again.

Next day, busy morning with all of us vying for the bathroom. The hairdryer I bought turns out to be a joke – I could have DH blow on my hair and it would dry faster. Plus, the collapsible handle kept collapsing. Ha! Guess I will just pull back my hair in a clip for the next month or so. . .

We spend the morning following the recommended walking tour in the Fodor’s guide – backward – which turned out to be more of a challenge than we thought. Still, saw great sights – amazing places, markets, lots of people-watching spots. The Modern Art Museum had a bizarre painting of Bill and Chelsea Clinton with Putin’s black dog. Putin and his wife were in the next painting over, in front of the Taj Mahal. All were surrounded by a deck of playing cards strewn about. Must mean something to modern art aficionados – a mystery to moi. Across the street to the Prince of Wales Museum – can’t remember the new name – but neither can anyone else, so . . . We decline to go in and continue on the Fodor’s tour, walking up M.G. Road past great examples of Colonial architecture to the Jehangir Art Museum. Across the street we visit the Rhythm House, where DD bought a CD set of essential Bollywood music. We continue up to the Flora Fountain – stared at all along the route – now we know what it feels like to be famous. Ha! (This feeling will continue throughout our travels in India, which really does surprise us.) After the fountain we debate which way to wander. We spy an eternal flame and wander over to it, supposing that it commemorates war dead, or a famous politician or some such thing, but no, unless I am missing some marker, it is an advertisement for the gas company. Interesting advertising placement, I must say.

Back on our walking tour, we finally make it up to Victoria Terminus, which also has a new name that I can’t remember, but neither can anyone else, so. . . We wander into the terminal, take some film of the pulsating crowds and comment on the diversity of the folks hanging out there waiting for trains. We decide to go up to the Chor Bazaar and hire a cab to take us there. As we zoom through Bombay, we can’t help but compare it to “Blade Runner” – masses of signs everywhere, animals, street stalls, crowds, color, darkness – it seems to go on and on. The cab drops us and we ramble through the streets of the bazaar. I love markets. Not necessarily to buy stuff, but for the smells, the colorful displays of fresh fruit and vegetables, the hustle and bustle of the people and animals, the shouting and bargaining, and even the dirt and flies. DD spots a 16 mm Bolex film movie camera that works, but the guy wants 8,000 Rs. She says she can get it cheaper on Ebay and he doesn’t react – no lowering the price here, so no sale and on we go. Kids riding horses, cats on tin roofs, motorbikes recklessly swerving in and out of the people – its chaotic, but oh so interesting. We decide to head back down to the Jehangir gallery, as we are to meet DD’s friend AP (whose Dad was shot on 26/11) at 3. As we are a bit early, we walk over to Bombay University and watch the hundreds of cricket games in progress.

We head back to the art gallery for lunch, but the café is closed so we go down the street to the Copper Chimney. Recommended. Food was good – cheese naan, dal, chicken masala, paneer tikka, chicken kebobs and rice. AP finds us in the restaurant and joins us. She is a tough girl, raised in Bombay on Marine Drive. AP’s dad is a big developer – he is building the apartment buildings that are replacing Dharavi. He’s already completed 40 buildings in place of a slum in North Mumbai. After visiting the slums, we have mixed feelings about the slum redevelopments and engage AP in an interesting conversation on the topic. Nothing is black and white, is it?!! After lunch (topped off by gelato from a place a few doors away), AP takes us to her car for a driving tour around the city. We aren’t sure where we are going – no place in particular – when we end up in Horniman Circle. Lo and behold – a Bollywood shoot for the film Delhi Belly is in progress. We park the car and watch from across the street. First we are told to stay back – and no photos! But, then someone wanders over and informs us that the “head man” has decided to invite us over and we are told to come closer and it is now ok to take photos. I tried valiantly before we left the States to set up a Bollywood tour, without success, and here it just falls into our path. Wow! Fantastic! DD and AP are both studying film, so this is just a perfect way to spend the afternoon. After the shoot, we head back to our hotel, goodbyes around – see you in Chicago AP! Send our best to your dear dad and family! On to Bombay Central for the next adventure – overnight train to Ahmedabad.
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Old Feb 23rd, 2009, 10:59 PM
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I'm so pleased you had your Bollywood experience! That's where all this began, I seem to remember.

I'm really enjoying this report, not just as an entertaining story, but as a real blow-by-blow account that has ALL the info another traveler would require. Bravo. I'm enjoying it also 'cos I know exactly where you are. I've been on that reality slum tour - hey, maybe it was me who suggested it, I can't remembver - I came back with reservations about the company and my so-called guide but I, like you, am really pleased I went out there. I can tell by your description we were on the exact same route - probably with the same guide.

Like I may have said, Reality tours pledge to give a % of their profits back to the community - except there aren't any profits.

I'm in Mumbai on the 28th - thanks for the Elephanta briefing. I'm at Gordon House so I might go this time. [I don't really want to very much - I just think I SHOULD] I'll know to take the train and the sedan chair. I'll be back in Ahmedabad in a few weeks, so looking forward to your take on that. Well done.

Two things: totally agree with you about pals not being in the least interested. That's why I write in here, too.

Second: I'm delighted that you, too, are getting a taste of that positive reinforcement that this board gives out. It's lovely, isn't it?

Oh, and I'm really happy I'm remembered in Varanasi. That made me smile.

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Old Feb 24th, 2009, 02:11 AM
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Wonderful trip report, can't wait to read the rest.
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Old Feb 24th, 2009, 12:12 PM
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Just a bit today, as I am overwhelmed at work.

Mumbai to Ahmedabad: Mr. V. Patel.

Supposedly we are to have a 4th in our 4-bunk 1AC cabin, but no one shows – maybe he will board later. DD and I take the uppers and leave DH to fend off our unknown travel companion if he shows… A knock just a short time later and standing there in the door is our 4th, all in white, about 6’4”, with a half British/Indian and half New Jersey accent. Mr. V. Patel is from Cherry Hill, New Jersey – originally from Gujarat – and has now returned to India to take care of his 92-year-old father. Mr. V’s wife, who works for Rite-Aid drug stores, doesn’t want to return to India, so Mr. V. Patel is here alone.
“What is your Dad’s secret to living so long Mr. Patel?” DH asks.
“Two scotches every night."
he continues: "Dad got in the habit when the British were here and he waited on them. The Brits loved their drink. Now Dad has someone wait on him and every night his man brings a tray with a glass and Dad's scotch and soda. Which is very interesting, because Gujarat is a dry state. But Dad has obtained special permission and imports his own scotch.”
Special permission. I wonder how one attains that.
Mr. Patel used to work for a German pharma company. He worked his way up from a product manager to VP of new product marketing. He lives well in New Jersey, which his wife now considers her “real” home. Mr. Patel loves India and tells us many stories of his life in India before moving to the States. Mr. Patel has one daughter, who is a lawyer. She practices in Chicago, and while he describes what she does, he happens to mention in passing that she hates my employer. In many ways, I don’t blame her, but I decline to tell Mr. Patel what I do and who I work for – I think it is safer that way . . . considering we are sharing a cabin and I have no idea how deep this "hate" goes. He also tells us where to find the toilet, how to turn off the lights, when to get up, etc.
There is a knock on the door at 3 am.
I look down and Mr. V. Patel is gone in a flash of white – much like he arrived. In spite of the bit about my employer, I really liked Mr. Patel -- he gave us a flavor of what life used to be like in India and how much things have changed.

We arrive at the Ahmedabad station at about 4:45 am in pretty good sleep shape. A scrawny old man with a long red shirt and black skinny pants grunts at us. At first I thought he was begging, but apparently, he is a porter, so ok, yes, please take my luggage. Boy do I feel foolish assuming he was a beggar -- I guess I am conditioned from working in a big city where folks who look like him grunt for money. As we are standing next to a cart, I foolishly expect him to load the baggage on to the cart. But no, he wraps a cloth on his head and loads 2 of our giant 20-kilo bags on top of his head and carries the other. Wow! The next porter over has 4 bags on his head. These guys are amazing!
A Rep from the car company and our driver locate us (easy to do, as we are the only Westerners there it seems). We load our luggage in the car and we are off to . . .where?
Breakfast would be nice.
We drive around the station looking for a place to go – we try numerous places, but everything is closed at 5 am – except the Hotel Moti. We drove by this one earlier, but the rep decided to pass it by -- now it looks like the place to go, merely because it is open. The place is filled with Muslim men dressed in white – we definitely stand out from the crowd in our jeans and hoodies . . . I suspect that we are the topic of many conversations at the tables around us. I smile back at the guys who are staring at us, with no response. AWKWARD! We order tea and toast. Its served to us arranged like little sailboats. We need to chew up a couple of hours, so three rounds of tea and sailboats later we head out to conquer Ahmedabad.
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Old Feb 24th, 2009, 05:54 PM
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Conquer Ahmedabad... lol. Is it possible? We'll wait and see. I was there five days last time - I never conquered Ahmedabad - matter of fact, I don't think I even saw a smile... just that same blank, unfriendly stare. Everywhere.

'What on earth are you doing here?' the stare said.

'Go away.'
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Old Feb 25th, 2009, 12:12 PM
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Yeah -- we actually didn't spend too much time in Ahmedabad. We did get a few waves and smiles, but it definitely wasn't as friendly as some other places we visited. Maybe that is what I was feeling in the Hotel Moti. Anyway, here's the next installment. Thanks for reading dogster. I saw your post regarding traffic on your thread and am feeling the same. But I will try for a couple more days and see how it goes. Seems like a lot of work for little interest.

Ahmedabad – Dumb and dumber and Swami DH

We’ve instructed the rep from the car company and the driver that we want to take the heritage walk sponsored by the municipal corporation. We understand the tour starts at the Swaminarayan Temple at 8. We’ve already forwarded this info to the car company, but for some reason, these guys do not have our itinerary or any of the info we emailed earlier.
“No problem – we will find it.”
Thus begins a search for the Swaminarayan Temple. We drive, and drive, and hey, haven’t I seen this intersection before?
We stop for directions. We start driving again. Wait! Haven’t we been here twice already?!!
Round and round and round we go. Stop for directions and begin the process again. Its now 8 am and we’ve been driving in circles for more than an hour.
Now we are headed the wrong way on a one-way street. We all have our hands over our eyes as trucks, auto-rickshaws and bicycles zoom around us. Holy smokes!!!
Suddenly sirens – and next thing you know a cop screeches to a halt in front of the car.
Discussions ensue. And ensue. And ensue.
After a bit of this, for posterity’s sake, DH decides to pull out her video camera, much to the chagrin of the cop.
Finally there is a payoff and we are back searching for the temple, which is about 10 minutes from the Hotel Moti.
When we finally arrive, the car company rep tells me we can look around and then they’ll take us to the Jami Masjid.
“No,” I say, “we want to take the heritage walk. Its supposed to start here. Did they leave already?”
The rep and driver look at each other. Are they not understanding me?
“You look around here and we will show you some other things later.”
“We want to take the heritage tour!” I insist. “We want to walk through the old town on the tour!”
What is up here?
“OK, ok, we’ll be back for you.” And with no explanation they take off.
By this time, we have dubbed the rep and driver as “dumb and dumber.” Neither seems to know what was going on, how to get anywhere, or to be able to communicate with us or anyone else . . .
It becomes apparent that the heritage tour is not starting from the temple. And here we are. So, we visit the Swaminarayan temple.
It’s a large complex with conical decorated towers toped with flags. One of the monks greets us and invites us to look around. The big head swami is in residence, so there is lots of excitement!
DD and I are informed that we cannot go down to where the monks are meeting for prayer, as they are forbidden to have contact with women. Wonder what will happen if they do . . . perhaps they go back a few life cycles or their karma is messed up or something? Anyway, we women are told we can go upstairs in the temple with the other women. Drum banging is beginning – something is about to happen.
DH is escorted downstairs with the monks. He is introduced to the swami – a great honor for both the swami and DH. He is invited to pour the holy water. Awesome. He is presented with temple food and invited to the prayers.
In the meantime, DD and I are upstairs with the women, who are now chanting and jingling bells and cymbals. Suddenly, a curtain is pulled back and we see the idols of Namarayandev, Radhakrishana, and Dhamedev-Bhaki Mati. The crowd goes wild. Well, sort of. They are enraptured. Its an exciting moment.
After watching for a bit, DD and I wander back down to the plaza looking for DH. Dumb and dumber have now re-appeared, telling us they have found the municipal walking tour. DH is no where to be found, so dumb and dumber go looking for him. He’s still downstairs hanging out with his new BFF, the swami. He reappears with a monk – serious goodbyes follow. As he walks up the steps toward us, we can hear the monk evangelizing and telling him he only needs to devote 3 years and then he can become a monk himself. As DD and I listen and look on to this conversation we note how serious DH looks and wonder if he might be going off to join the order. Thank God, he decides to pass on the offer, as he joins us back in the van. Later he says, “if they only knew what an iconoclast I am!” I am relieved he will be staying with us.
In any case, we are on our way, we hope, to catch up with the heritage tour. It becomes apparent dumb and dumber still don’t know where to go, even though they are pretending they do. Up this alley, down that one, u-turn – back down an alley. Eventually we stop and dumber gets out to, I guess, find the tour. Ten minutes later he’s back and tells us to follow him. To where, we don’t know. Down one street we go – and stop and wait! He’ll be back. In the meantime, we watch men dying yarn, which is strung out across several yards near the street. Its at least interesting to watch while we wait. Finally, some local man comes to the rescue and we follow him to find the tour. Its half-over, of course, but enjoy the rest of the walk. (Recommended.) If we only read the tea leaves about what was coming up next.
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Old Feb 25th, 2009, 12:22 PM
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"But I will try for a couple more days and see how it goes. Seems like a lot of work for little interest. " Know how you feel - maybe we should ask Katie to post number of hits as well as number of replies? But I'm definitely reading along, eager to find out what disaster strikes next!
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Old Feb 25th, 2009, 12:34 PM
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Great report. Thanks for writing. We encountered 450 school children from Ahmedabad on a school trip to see tigers. They were the friendliest and cutest kids you can imagine. Of course their cheerful greetings scared away the beasts. Maybe the urchins will grow up to be friendly adults and change the dour city.
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Old Feb 25th, 2009, 01:14 PM
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Would love to hear more if you have the energy. We're heading to Golden Triangle/Rajasthan in a couple of weeks so we're absolutely obsessed about anything & everything Indian.
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Old Feb 25th, 2009, 11:07 PM
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Great report. It seems company guys made every effort in joining you heritage walking tour even they were not familiar with the area. I appriciate their effort. I think you should appriciate their effort rather to make fun of them as they were not aware of the area and about walking tour as well.
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Old Feb 25th, 2009, 11:48 PM
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"In any case, we are on our way, we hope, to catch up with the heritage tour. It becomes apparent dumb and dumber still don’t know where to go, even though they are pretending they do."
I think they did. Isn't it?. Did you thank them. If not should.
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