Our trip was inspired by our neighbor who was putting together an India tour for November. Martha began looking at tours and she came up with a Gate 1 tour that was a little shorter, stayed mostly 2 nights at each city, and was a bit cheaper. The hitch was that it was only two months away; last chance before it gets very hot in India and the rains come. Martha hadn't been keen on India, but she agreed because it was high on my list.
Our tour had 16 people, all from the US except one couple from Toronto. Our guide for the entire trip was Padmaja, an intelligent and charming woman who lived in Delhi. We were driven between cities and to our tour destinations in a large bus. Our part of the bus was comfortably air conditioned, though the driver and his assistant were in a separate front section without AC.
From the bus we could see that Delhi is a huge place with lots of new building going on. To me, probably the most interesting aspect of the trip was the "street scene". Millions of friendly people, going about their business at the side of the road, selling fruit, squeezing sugar cane for juice drinks, giving haircuts, cleaning out ear wax, gathering dung from the wandering cows and pressing it into patties to be dried for fuel. They stared, smiled, and waved at the curious tourists in the bus. Motorcycles and scooters by the thousand everywhere you look. Families of 5 going somewhere on the scooter, with only dad wearing the helmet.
Delhi, except for the new parts, is big, old, and messy. It's spread out over many square miles. As part of the tour we had a rickshaw ride through the narrow streets of old Delhi. Pretty amazing, with their electrical system in a mass confusion of wires overhead, and always traffic honking. They honk for three reasons: to let someone know they are overtaking and to move over a few inches, to warn pedestrians and others of their intent to zoom on through, and for the sheer joy of honking the horn.
Traffic in the cities was both shocking and entertaining. There seemed no sense of lanes or right-of-way. Instead it all moved (sometimes very slowly) in a fluid motion, each motorcycle or bicycle a grain of sand with large trucks and busses obstructions to be darted in front of and around. Amazingly we saw no accidents. The traffic flowed easily around the cows and water buffalo standing in the middle or wandering slowly, and apart from the honking there didn't seem to be frustration or road rage.
Our hotels, mostly new or newly updated, exceeded expectation. They were busy with well dressed tourists from around the world, even at the end of the season. In Delhi a young boy alone in the elevator with me looked up with interest and asked "where are you coming from?". I answered, then asked where he was from. He answered quietly "Madagascar". Maybe not so far from India, but it sounded exotic to me. In the hotels there were of course elegantly dressed Indian women and their generic-looking men, and the occasional spooky black-shrouded Arab women.
From what I saw, the Indian women of all classes still dress in colorful saris, while the men are in boring western clothes. They have a very low unemployment rate and you can see why. Most everything is done by hand. Women in their saris work in the fields cutting grain with sickles and tying it in little bunches. Bricks are made putting clay into little molds and firing in a furnace fueled by cow patties and straw. The smoke stacks are quite high and give off impressive billows of smoke. The air in Delhi seemed pretty thick with pollution to me, but apparently things have improved. The motorcycles are 4 cycle (versus oil burning and cheaper 2 cycle) and the motorized rickshaws (tuk tuks) run on compressed natural gas.
In Agra we saw our share of beautiful and classic buildings, and impressive and vast forts, including the Taj Mahal. But again the most interesting to me was the huge population of apparently happy, hard-working people.
Jaipur also had amazing monuments, tombs, palaces etc. The hotel in Jaipur was the Ramada, and it was the most ordinary of all our hotels. A bit run down and in need of renovation.
We drove on to Ranthambore to see the tigers. It's like whale watching - you don't always get to see a tiger since they're elusive, nocturnal, and have been hunted to a sparse population. Our lodging was on a dirt road, a long way out of any towns, and the least fancy of any of our lodging - but quite satisfactory in any case. We went out on a early morning drive in an open vehicle, saw many animals in the park, but no tigers. For our afternoon attempt, the day was warming up and I wasn't totally enthused about another bumpy ride.
It happened that our visit coincided with the holiday of Holi, celebration of good over evil. Holi is celebrated by daubing your friends, colleagues, and family with colored powder. Our wonderful guide provided us with special white clothing so we could participate without messing up our normal clothing. In our whites we truly looked like a cult. So dressed in our white clothing we went on our morning safari. No tigers that time out. After our safari, we did the Holi thing, splattering each other with the colored powder our guide provided. The British kids got into it with teenage abandon.
Partway into our afternoon safari we did spot a tiger. She was coming down a low hill toward the road, seemingly oblivious to the fact there were several vehicles there. She continued, crossing the road very close to some jeeps and not far from us. I got a shot or two with my little camera, but at least one of our group got an excellent shot of the tiger looking at the camera.
In Kota (our only one night stand) we stayed in a Majarana's palace, build about 100 years ago and partially converted to a hotel but still housing royalty in a separate private section. Our room was huge, with 14 foot ceilings and a separate dressing room. It was fun to explore and we found a billiard room, and many other rooms and courtyards. We checked out and started our drive to Udaipur. We had been driving for about ½ hour, poking our way through traffic when Padmaja's phone rang (Good, Bad & Ugly theme song) and the bus pulled over to the side. It appears that in checking out they had neglected to collect for the "milk shake" (chocolate milk) we had charged to the room at the palace restaurant. The hotel sent a chap on motorcycle to catch up with us and collect. I paid him the 106 Rupees ($2), tipped him a bit more, and we went on our way. He was also able to return someone's phone charger left behind, and the unscheduled stop only cost us about 20 minutes so I didn't feel too chagrinned.
Udaipur was the place I would recommend to anyone visiting India. There are a series of lakes, with hills in the background. Around lake Pichola are hotels of varying degrees of posh. Ours was the Trident, next door to and part of the same complex as the Oberoi Udiavillas, touted by Travel & Leisure magazine as the "best hotel in the world". Martha and I walked over and had a drink and snacks in the bar. The bar was elegant and tranquil and we could hear sitar music in the background. Looking down at the outdoor dining area we could see the two musicians (sitar and tabla).
Vanessa had asked us if possible to bring back a "real" musical instrument. The signature instrument of India to me is the sitar, so this was my shopping quest. The next day while exploring a street full of shops, we wandered into a musical instrument shop and chatted with the shopkeeper. It turned out he was the sitar player we had enjoyed the previous night. He had sitars for sale, but they're quite large and fragile looking. I had also had a chance to look them up on Ebay once while checking email and there didn't seem to be any dollar advantage in carrying one home. So we bought a flute - the snake charming variety.
I noticed that the Indians, young and old, were very open about brotherly affection. I saw young men friends with their arms on each other's shoulders and several holding hands while walking. In the US, that's just not done lest people get the wrong idea.
We flew from Udaipur to Mumbai. Again the hotel was very nice, and again the security very tight. Our hotel, the Trident was the site of an attack by gunmen in 2008. The guide said she had lost a good friend among the 30 people killed in the shooting. Before a car or bus can approach the hotel, the guards search under the vehicle with a mirror. All luggage and hand bags are X-rayed and men and women pass through separate metal detectors and are separately wanded if anything beeps.
Most of our group continued on to Goa for a longer tour. Six of us stayed in Mumbai until our flight left at 2AM. Martha & I took a taxi to the Archway - center of town to see the sights and perhaps have a boat ride. We had a look at the old and posh Taj hotel (the scene of a bombing in 2011). It was very nice and we found large Easter bunnys of flowers in the lobby. We went to see about a boat ride and were approached by chaps who were touting a 2600 Rupee ride (about $50 each). We were running low on Rupees and also this was way too much for us. Then a 60 Rupee ride appeared and we bought tickets. We were led to an ancient wooden boat tided to the wall and half full of Indian tourists. Conversation stopped as we sat our little white bottoms down among the "locals". But after I visited a bit with the young lady next to me and they had looked us over thoroughly, everyone relaxed. We waited perhaps a half hour while the rest of the boat filled up, then we putt-putted out into the bay. We had a good look at Indian Navy ships, including an aircraft carrier, and a high-tech looking pursuit boat.
After the cruise, we saw the Indian Navy marching band and drill team perform in front of the arch. Again, the crowd was mostly Indian tourists, so we got a lot of stares and pictures taken of us.
The flight back was long - leaving at 2AM Tuesday and arriving in SF at 10PM. That's 20 hours on the clock, plus 13 ½ hours time change, making 33 ½ hours travel time. I was able to sleep off and on, unusual for me. I attribute my sleep to the fact that I wore ear protectors from my workshop (big green plastic shells). They shut out the loud roaring and are more comfortable than noise suppression earphones. I've resolved to bring them on all long flights in the future. The leg from Brussels into New Jersey was turbulent during the last hour. Martha & I were both feeling hot and woozy and fanning ourselves with the safety cards. Then I noticed others holding sickness bags to their mouths, and soon there was loud retching and vomiting from many places behind us. A woman across the aisle from Martha passed out to the point where she lost control of her bladder. The flight attendants came running and laid her on the floor, and she came around eventually. We landed on time but I'll bet the next flight was delayed while they cleaned up the plane. Son-in-law Paul was there to meet us in SF and we were glad to be home.