Unforgettable, Incredible India

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Mar 30th, 2018, 02:20 PM
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Unforgettable, Incredible India

We have just returned from our first trip to India. First, I want to thank fellow Fodorites for all your excellent advice and answers to my many questions. There's no question that our trip was much improved thanks to you!

My husband (P) has wanted to visit India for years; me, not so much. For him, it was a trip of a lifetime and It ended up being a father/daughter adventure which I was happy to support as a spectator but not as a participant. I've always felt that India is a country you need to take a vacation after visiting! As a former travel agent, I offered to make the arrangements for the three of them (more to come on that). In the year + of planning, P occasionally served me with the "you'll be sorry" card which I was able to successfully ignore until one day last summer when in a moment of weakness I compromised, agreeing to meet them for their second week. That turned out to be one of my better decisions!

The three of them flew from their respective US cities to Amsterdam, then to Mumbai. With only two weeks, it was non-stop with only about two nights in each location. Not ideal, but the best we could do given what they wanted to see. From Mumbai, they flew to Udaipur, then to Delhi where I met them. Next was Varanasi, Agra then back to Delhi.

For me, part of the fun of traveling is the planning. With more than a year to dig in, I researched and researched. The more I read, the more I realized that the complexity of the country and my utter lack of knowledge about it made planning this trip a test I wasn't going to pass. Plus, I was becoming more and more frustrated and knowing how important this trip was to P, I wanted it to be perfect. That's when I turned to Fodors with a basic itinerary and many questions. At the same time I realized that I needed professional travel agent assistance and again, you came through with recommendations.

I contacted Castle and King after reading their site and reviews. I know now that it’s a relatively small agency headquartered in Delhi and owned by a wonderful man by the name of Mr. Arvind. There was nothing he wouldn’t arrange for us, his responses to my emails were all within 24 hours and he patiently endured the many changes I made along the way. The result was that we had a private and flawless two-week tour. Mr. Arvind made all the flight reservations and booked several of the hotels. In each city we had a driver who met us at the airport and hotels as well as a guide. The guides had suggested itineraries, but their time was ours and they happily accommodated our many requests. Each of the five guides was outstanding and we learned a great deal from them. The drivers were equally excellent as was the Toyota minivan which was stocked with water and coke every day.

The one hiccup occurred the weekend before P and our daughters left the US, and some of you were involved, walking me back from the ledge. There had been no mention of payment despite my asking early on. That weekend, after my asking again, Mr. Arvind said that we’d pay him in cash in Delhi. There was no way we were going to take that much cash and we began to question the integrity and even the legitimacy of the agency. After my gentle but firm pushback, he agreed to take a credit card. Crisis averted.

Unfortunately I can’t speak to Mumbai or Udaipur directly, but both were huge hits with my family. Thanks again to Fodorites, we booked the Trident Nariman Point in Mumbai which they loved. They felt that Mumbai was a modern, cosmopolitan city, and as it turned out, the only city which my daughters (both adults) could feel safe to walk in alone.

One of the many reasons I knew I needed a travel agent was my total inability to make sense of the Indian train system. We love to travel on trains in Europe, but this was far beyond my ability to comprehend. In addition, with only two weeks, I didn’t want them to be spending large chunks of time going from place to place, so we ended up flying, mainly on IndiGo Airlines which was, in our opinion, a great airline.

So they flew from Mumbai to their next stop, Udaipur. I originally booked a beautiful heritage property outside of Udaipur and very late into the planning, changed it knowing that P would be happier closer to the city. There weren’t many options at that late date, so I ended up with the Udai Kothi which is a stone's throw from the lake and closer to town. It was a hit (whew)! They said their room was beautiful and there’s a lovely rooftop pool and a restaurant. In addition, they found two excellent restaurants, one across the street from the hotel and the other, a five-minute walk on Lake Pichola. In short, they loved Udaipur.

They then flew to Delhi which is where I met them. We booked Le Meridien on Daughter #1’s Starwood points. It’s a beautiful, high rise hotel in central Delhi. We got the feeling that it’s largely a business hotel, but there were also families. From our room, we could look one way to see India Gate and the other to see the Presidential palace - lovely! We’ve heard so much about the “5 star bubble” and it did feel good to return to such a nice hotel at the end of the day.

I was in Delhi for 13 hours before we flew to Varanasi. Stay tuned...
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Mar 30th, 2018, 03:14 PM
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Welcome home! Looking forward to the rest of your report.
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Mar 30th, 2018, 03:21 PM
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I understand your apprehension about India - except you made the leap and I still haven't. I'm looking forward to your journey.
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Mar 30th, 2018, 03:55 PM
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tripplanner001,

I'm so glad I did. It took a lot of pestering from my husband but I've thanked him numerous times these past two weeks. I can't imagine not having had this experience!
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Mar 30th, 2018, 04:01 PM
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Really looking forward!
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Mar 30th, 2018, 08:32 PM
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Glad you decided to go to India and enjoy the amazing experience.
Enjoying your report and waiting to hear more.
Please add a few shopping details too.
Did you enjoy the food and did you have kind of minor health problems.
Enjoy resting this weekend and cherish the memories.
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Mar 30th, 2018, 09:46 PM
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Welcome home, Ellen! Great to hear you and yours enjoyed a quick but enticing taste of india that made you want more. Kudos to your husband for encouraging you to join the rest of the family.
You booked a well-located hotel in Udaipur. I stayed around the corner(well, around winding alleyways) from Udai Kothi, and liked walking across the footbridge to the busier, crazier, City Palace side. The other hotel you considered had the beautiful but distant view, whereas there is nothing quite like being right IN town in in walking distance to the Lake where you can see from close up,the wonderful illuminated buildings and their reflection on the water.
Did your daughters do much walking from Nariman Point, and if so, did they feel the walk was easily do-able to, for example, Gateway of India?
Glad to that the guides worked out and that you learned a lot from them!
Thank you for the review of IndiGo!! I may have to fly with them next winter...good to know you were happy with them!

So, are you planning another trip yet?
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Mar 31st, 2018, 02:10 AM
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Welcome home, Ellen! I'm thrilled to hear that it was a wonderful trip! I can't wait to hear about your own experiences as it sounds like the father-daughters part of the trip was a huge success. Do you have any regrets over not joining them for the first part? Still, if you got to Varanasi, you experienced INDIA in all its fantastic glory (and gory!). So looking forward to your thoughts.
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Mar 31st, 2018, 02:08 PM
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CaliNurse,

The did walk in Mumbai, mainly along the coast (if that makes sense) but not to the Gateway of India. They felt very safe and there were a lot of people. Conversely, they walked from Le Meridien to India Gate when they got to Delhi and did not feel safe. They said it was a totally different experience. I'm actually not sure why they did that (it was before I arrived) as we had been told not to walk alone in Delhi.
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Mar 31st, 2018, 02:12 PM
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Progol,

Your question is one I've been thinking about. In retrospect, I think I would have loved the first week, especially Udaipur, but for a first time visit, one week was perfect. My next post will be Varanasi. I'm trying to formulate words for it while trying to navigate in the fog of jet lag. Soon... Is your trip to Morocco coming up?
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Mar 31st, 2018, 03:53 PM
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Varanasi


Varanasi, or Benares as we heard the Indians refer to it, is the oldest and most holy city in India. 35,000 pilgrims make the trip to Varanasi every day. How do you describe an indescribable place? Indescribable? Incredible? Unbelievable? Maybe other-worldly. We arrived late afternoon after an easy flight from Delhi, just in time to check into our guest house, meet our guide and walk along the ghats, embankments leading to the river, to the Aarti ceremony. Aarti is a devotional ritual to the Goddess Ganga (the Indian word for Ganges) held on the banks of the Ganges which incorporates fire and music. It is performed by four young Hindu priests. We were to have watched it from a boat on the river, but the day we arrived the President of Germany was in Varanasi, observing it from the river, so no other river travel was allowed. We ended up just a few feet from the stage with a bird’s eye view. The combination of the priests’ orange robes, the fire, the incense and music created an unforgettable atmosphere. Our guide told us that it’s attended by about 1,000 people every night.

Our guest house was located only a few ghats away, so our walk to and from the ceremony was our first taste of Varanasi. We loved passing the cows and goats and taking in the rich night air. And I hadn’t yet been in India for 24 hours!

The next day we met our guide at 5:45 to board a boat. The ghats are on the west side of the river, so the sun rising across the shore was a sight to see. Varanasi is where many Indians bring their loved ones to be cremated. Unlike other locations in India, cremation takes place 24 hours a day in Varanasi. We first traveled to a small cremation ghat, then to the main one where several fires were burning. Our guide told us when to stop taking pictures as this is a funeral service, after all.

The body is anointed with butter (ghee) and is then shrouded in a white garment before being placed on a base of wood. More wood is placed on top of the body and one of the family members (usually the oldest son) takes a stalk of straw, lights it from an eternal flame and sets the body on fire. We were told it takes about three - five hours for the body to burn, although some burn faster. Our guide proudly told us that he attended the cremation of his friend’s father whose body only took two hours to burn, indicating very good karma. They’re cremated with their jewelry so the workers at the site dredge the river for the gold and other precious metals which they turn into the people who run the crematory. I asked our guide if anyone is ever buried rather than cremated. He said that children under the age of about 10 aren’t cremated since it’s considered a premature death. Pregnant women aren’t cremated since the fetus is considered a premature death, and those with chicken pox aren’t cremated. I didn’t ask why, out of all the illnesses, they single out chicken pox! In those cases he said the body is weighted and dropped into the river.

Not surprisingly, there were enormous piles of wood at the ghat. Our guide told us that there’s quite a bit of controversy in India due to deforestation partially as a result of cremations. The government is pushing for electric cremation and we saw billboards in Delhi for the electric option, but I can’t imagine that they’ll ever sell that in Varanasi.

We felt privileged to be able to observe this solemn ceremony.

More on Varanasi to come. At the end of the Varanasi post, I’ll have a link to pictures which really tell the story.
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Mar 31st, 2018, 06:13 PM
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Ellen - how nice to hear back from you so soon after your trip and how wonderful that you took the plunge to discover Incredible India! I’m glad that castle & king worked out for you. I look forward to hearing the rest of your story. Sounds like you are now hooked like many of us and I envision a return trip in your future. India calls to me!
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Mar 31st, 2018, 06:21 PM
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Thank you for describing the ceremony so beautifully - in so much detail. You really made it come to life.
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Mar 31st, 2018, 07:04 PM
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Ellen, that's wonderful that you were able to experience India first hand, and enjoy a vacation with your daughters. After two trips to India, Varanasi remains my favorite city, simply because it is so unique.

We intentionally watched the Aarti ceremony up close like you did--it was spectacular seeing the flames and priests from three feet away. For me, the sunrise boat ride on the Ganges was sufficient. We walked the entire length of the ghats--did you get a chance to do that? Did you get to Sarnath?

Speaking for the group, lol, we want to hear about the food. Just to be safe, I ate totally vegetarian on both of my trips to India, and I found it much easier to do so in the South, where there is a higher percentage of vegetarians. Please tell us about your meals.
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Apr 1st, 2018, 04:47 AM
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Ellen, it’s great you had a wonderful trip, and thanks for your evocative report. I’d also like to hear about the food.
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Apr 1st, 2018, 05:47 AM
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So glad to hear you loved Varanasi! It was such a rich experience for us, and we were mesmerized by the Aarti ceremony. We, too, were very close up near the stage and loved the experience from there as we were amongst the many celebrants -- both tourists and those making the pilgrimage for the ceremony.

Varanasi is an intense experience, but such a remarkable place to taste India for the first time!
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Apr 1st, 2018, 02:54 PM
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More Varanasi...

After the morning boat ride we returned to our guest house, Shiva Ganges View, on Mansarovar Ghat. We had a good breakfast on the rooftop patio watching the boats and the antics of the monkeys on the neighboring buildings. After breakfast we met our guide for a walk through what he called the “narrow lanes” of Varanasi. We loved the colors, the sounds and observing people going about their daily routines, dodging the ubiquitous cows, goats, dogs and motorcycles.


We visited a shop selling oils and incense. It was fun to test the various oils and learn what they’re used for. We noticed that a line was forming in the lane outside the shop. Our guide said that they were pilgrims lining up to walk through the temple. They stand in line for hours for a five second experience inside the temple. India has a way of fitting people and/or cars/motorcycles/tuk tuks/rickshaws into spaces they shouldn’t be able to fit into. A two lane road becomes five lanes. In this case, the narrow lane which would normally easily accommodate two to three people abreast was becoming more dense every minute. Daughter #2 and I left the shop with our guide just ahead of P and Daughter #1, elbowing our way through the masses.

We were quickly absorbed into the the crowd that was moving slowly, but deliberately, and we lost P and Daughter #1. There were soldiers (police?) trying to keep the crowd under control which was somewhat reassuring. Our guide, realizing that we had become separated from the other two, told us to step into a side alley where we stayed, plastered against a wall, next to a soldier. Minutes passed with no sign of the rest of our family. Our guide was getting concerned as were we, so he set out like a salmon swimming upstream to find them. Several fights broke out which the were quickly quashed by the soldiers - thank heavens for them. I can’t describe the sea of humanity; I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a crushing mass of people. Finally we spotted P and Daughter #1, being swept up by the crowd, looking like deers in a headlight. I yelled to them as they started to pass our alley and they were able to break free. Our guide appeared at the same time, so I thought he had found them, but as close as he was to them, he hadn’t seen them. It was scary. My husband said that if they had fallen they would have been trampled. I guess it shows the devotion of the pilgrims as well as how you have to fight for your square inch when you’re one of 1 billion people.

We continued to wind our way through the endless narrow lanes, enjoying the many tiny temples and colors, stopping at an area above the main cremation ghat. Our eyes burned from the smoke and ashes, but it was amazing to observe from just above.

That evening we had dinner at Nice Restaurant. I can’t tell you where it is other than it was around the corner from our guest house. It’s a tiny hole in the wall with six tables. It was probably the best food we had in India. It’s owned by Babu and his wife who both do the cooking. We were the only customers (we guessed that everyone else was attending that night’s Aarti ritual), so Babu came out to talk to us. We each ordered a different dish to share. It was wonderful! https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUser...r_Pradesh.html

A note about our guest house. It couldn’t have been in a better location. Whoever told me to move to the ghats - thank you - we wouldn’t stay anywhere else in Varanasi! I have mixed feelings about the hotel, however, and gave it only an average rating on TripAdvisor. We certainly weren’t expecting a 5-star experience, nor did we want one, but we were greeted by a gentleman in the lobby who told us to pay the two nights/two rooms fee in cash. As we weren’t prepared for that, we pooled our cash and paid half. He grudgingly agreed to collect the rest when we checked out. I got the feeling that if we had pressed it, he would have taken a credit card, but we didn’t feel like fighting with him. Not the greeting we expected! Our rooms were fine and we had a little patio which was a plus, but the mosquito netting above the beds was filthy which really turned me off the entire place. Does anyone know of any other guest houses on the ghats? I would love to hear about your experiences.

Varanasi left its mark on us and was the highlight of our trip. I hope these few photos give a little insight to this amazing place for those of you who haven’t been there.

Photos link to dropbox
https://www.dropbox.com/sh/2tgppdk4c...72GhSLyta?dl=0
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Apr 1st, 2018, 04:42 PM
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Thanks for sharing pictures, although I must say I am captivated by your words. You, as well as a few other Fodorites who shared their stories before you, are inching me closer to India.

Interestingly though, the one part of the country that would be most important to me - Bihar (I'm Buddhist) - has not been mentioned by a visitor to India yet.
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Apr 1st, 2018, 06:41 PM
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Tripplanner, re your interest in Buddhism, what about Himachal Pradesh area of Dharamsala/MceodGanj,? Or Sarnath near Varanasi, or Byelukuppe in a beautiful region of Karnataka in the South? n Ive been fortunate to have been to all , so when the time is right for you, ask away. there is a lot here by others about Sarnath---Elln had question about it on one of there planning threads

Ellen, it was I who first said you should stay at the ghats rather than in the location hotel where you originally had booked. It's on your "What part of Mumbai?" quesionquestion thread. Progol added the name of the guesthouse where she stayed but which was fully booked by the time you enquired. There areotehs, some quite bit more upscale and professional than Shiva Ganges View (rude staff, dirty mossy nets...yuck!)and no doubt, they were booked as well for you time period: Welcome Heritage Jukaso (sold out when I requested it) Suryauday Haveli ( heard of yrs ago on this India forum) and at the high, high end of the economic scale, the fairly newly opened Brijrama Palace.(?) There are other guesthouses on the ghats--Palace on the Gnages, or fangs view maybe? I stayed at a wonderful homestay BUT it was midway between the ghats and downtown---this is whenI learned the benefit of being on the ghats , vs a15 minuite walk, or drive from them..at least for a couple days.

In India, as you learned with some of your other inquiries, you have to book many months in advance if you're set on a particular lodging, especially small guest house or palace or homestays where rooms are often prized, and rare. ( am booking now for next January.) So ...a tip for your next trip to Incredible India

It will be interesting to go back and read your planning threads, see which advice you agree or disagree with, and what you can add, now that you have been!!

Awesome photos!!!! Thank you for posting these, as well as your excellent commentary and reviews.
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Apr 1st, 2018, 07:03 PM
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Didn't C and K book your hotels, per your requests? If they were prepaid, why did the guy at the Varanasi Guest House pressure you about the $$?

If you booked that place yourself, take it as another "learning experience" tip for possible future India travels. I've "been there" so i sympathize! This unexpected "cash payment" request happened to me twice, on trips i hadn't booked myself--one entailed a late night walk to an ATM to obtain cash--in one of Kolkata's busiest roundabouts!! ! Should you use a good India-based agent/planner, let them take care of the booking confirmations and payments, and there will no such issues on hotel arrival! if there are, you call your local agency contact and let them deal with it!! Most of the time--assuming the hotel people aren't total jerks-- they can handle the situation better than you yourself can.

You know from your "agent trip payment" thread that PM Modi is aiming to do away with cash-only tax-avoidance nonsense. Next time you can sweetly say, "Oh! I thought the current government policy is credit card payment only--no more black money!"

Your crowd story of VNS ...wow, Ellen!!! Scary!!!! Talk about the ultimate "immersive" India experience!!!!! Thank heaven you all got through it ok!
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