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18. Apr, 2011

“Blob out” day

We officially declared today a “blob out” day – government buildings and monuments were still closed and we had some packing to do.

Feeling a bit under the weather today, I had breakfast and then went back to bed until just before the 12:00 check-out time.  We really just kicked our heels today and went and did some more window shopping for the girls back home in the afternoon.  After a “fuel stop” at McDonalds for more Spicy Paneer Burgers, we headed back to the hotel for an afternoon of “chillaxing” by the pool.

We had one more thing to do in Jaipur – to dine like royalty at the Sahib Sindh Sultan.  I’d been there twice in 2008 and wanted Rhys to experience the food and ambiance in a restaurant within an old railway carriage.  We were also joined by Sandeep from UOR Travel.

The quality of food and service was just as I remembered it – excellent.

We’ll shortly be heading over Jaipur Railway station where we’ll board an overnight train for Udaipur.  I have done this once before so know what tonight holds in store for both of us!

17. Apr, 2011

Match day in Jaipur

Manish, our host from Friday’s meeting, had agreed to take us sightseeing today but our plans were significantly disrupted due to the death of Jaipur’s last maharaja, Bhawani Singh, who was 80.  The Rajasthan state government announced 2 days of state mourning and that all government offices and buildings would be closed until Tuesday.

Unfortunately, we didn’t find out until we arrived at Jaigarh Fort.  We also learned that The City Palace would remain closed for visitors for three days.  I’d been to both in 2008 and knew that Rhys would have found both of them very impressive.  I wonder what the tourists who arrived this morning on scheduled package trips are thinking.

Strangely, Nahargarh Fort was open to the public so we had a quick look around but it’s not as impressive as Jaipur’s other forts.  After Manish had dropped us back to our hotel, we spent some time by the pool before getting ready for this afternoon’s IPL match between the Rajasthan Royals and Kolkata Knight Riders.

We certainly experienced India’s notorious bureaucracy today!  Having booked tickets online in New Zealand last week, we were advised to collect them from the “ticket office” 2 hours before the game starts.  The “ticket office” was an enclosed concrete bunker with one window which was no bigger than the size of a normal house brick!  We had no idea who was inside but after providing ID, we managed to collect our 2 tickets!

Apparently we committed the cardinal sin of taking a camera to the game today, which gave every security guard the right to “flex their authority”.  We were refused entry, told to go and sit with the media (and then subsequently refused access); told to go to this gate and then that gate and after 75 minutes of pleading that we weren’t journalists, we finally found a helpful official who waved us through – just in time for the game to start.  I question whether the hassle was worth it as the Royals received a true caning from the Knight Riders!  And you guessed it – locals clicking their spanking new cameras!

To make matters worse, we had forgotten the name of our hotel so getting back tonight was a big challenge!  But as luck would have it, we walked straight past the hotel I stayed at in 2008 so we decided to go and have dinner in their garden restaurant.  I even “persuaded” Rhys to join in with the dancers!  I’m sure he’ll forgive me!

16. Apr, 2011

Pink, party and astrology

I think we were spoilt in Delhi and Agra.  The breakfasts, in the otherwise delightful Shahpura House Hotel, have been pretty average, to say the least!  I knew today was going to be a full day.  We’d agreed to hire Mehmoob (the rickshaw driver we used yesterday) for the day rather than enduring the energy sapping haggling required with most Jaipur rickshaw drivers!

Temperatures reached 37 degrees today (and it’s still not the hottest month here!) so we had to pace ourselves.  This morning we visited the Hawa Mahal (also called the Palace of the Winds) where the Maharaja’s wives and girlfriends were sheltered from prying eyes.  It’s a bit run down now but worth a brief visit.

After some brief shopping to buy some authentic Indian copper pots and pans & thali dishes (against Karen’s strict instructions I must add!), we fought our way through traffic to reach Jantar Mantar.  Jantar is an amazing observatory with structures than can measure time to an accuracy of 2 seconds (ironic, given Indians’ notorious lack of punctuality!).  We should have heeded advice and paid for a guide to explain how all of the devices and statues worked.

A brief visit to the Central Museum did nothing to raise our eyebrows as the heat was beginning to take its toll on both of us.

This evening, we were taken to Choki Dhani, which is about 20 minutes drive from Jaipur and is a reconstructed traditional Rajasthan village.  We arrived just after 8pm with Kshitij, his wife Priyanka and their son Aram, and then strolled around lantern-lit pathways soaking up the amazing carnival atmosphere.  Rhys enjoyed a camel ride as well as having his future told by a traditional palm reader.  There was so much to do and the 250 rupees admission (about NZ$8) included a traditional Rajasthani thali, which is a combination of many foods served on one plate.


15. Apr, 2011

Elephants, forts and food!

I freely admit to being a “Jaipurite”.  And it was the perfect place to spend with my son.

I’d arranged an early morning rickshaw (we’d given our driver the day off) out to Amber Fort so we could take an elephant ride to the top of the hill.  I’d done the same trip in 2008 with a business associate from Jaipur.  There’s something majestic about riding on an elephant and for 900 rupees (NZ$30) for the 2 of us, it was definitely worth every cent.

Today was the 1st time that Rhys and I had a “tête-à-tête”, which probably had more to do with 2 Alpha Males competing than anything else!  But after a cooling off period of about 20 minutes, we continued to explore the fort together and experience its amazing maze of walls, staircases, courtyards and gardens.

We had a meeting this afternoon and were hosted for a late lunch at the Copper

Chimney, one of Jaipur’s better known non-vegetarian restaurants.  I ordered Kadai Murgh, which is chicken marinated in a blend of delicate spices and then cooked in a heavy wok – delicious!

With full stomachs, and 9 days travelling behind us, we decided to take it easy this evening and have a light supper and an early night.

14. Apr, 2011

Fresh footprints, but no sighting

We thought that we’d struck lucky this morning.  In an area of more than 1,110 square metres and with less than 40 tigers roaming, we were excited to see fresh tiger footprints.   Following a different trail to yesterday afternoon’s safari, everyone was excited as jeeps were racing everywhere after Sambar Deer distress calls were heard.  Guides were very confident that tigers were in the area.  But if I had a dollar for every time I’d heard “tigers were spotted 2 days ago” I would have retired a long time ago…still, I lived in hope.

We waited patiently.  But to no avail.  After a pretty “average” breakfast, we set off for Jaipur on what turned out to be a very uninspiring journey – our driver excelled by finding more pot holes than yesterday!  I couldn’t wait to reach Jaipur – the capital of Rajasthan.

We arrived at our hotel in late afternoon.  And to be honest, Shahpura House exceeded my expectations.  I have to admit – I love Jaipur and spent 10 days here in 2008 and loved every single minute, which is why I was keen to show Rhys my “adopted” Indian city.

From the time that William greeted us in reception to when one of his staff showed us to our room, I felt at home – it helped that we were upgraded to a beautiful suite with a balcony with views over the city, Aravelli Hills and Amber Fort!

We took some washing to a local dhobi whallah – only 240 rupees (NZ$8) for a massive bag of washing and ironing!

How else could we spend dinner this evening other than on the hotel’s roof top terrace?

13. Apr, 2011

Our quest to see Shere Khan

We had an early start this morning as we had a 6 hour road trip for an appointment on an afternoon safari to spot a Royal Bengal Tiger.  Arriving just after 12:00 from a very bumpy road trip (our driver found every pot hole between Agra and Ranthambore) we were thankful of a quick swim at the hotel’s pool and some lunch before our encounter with “Shere Khan”.

I must admit, that having been twice before and not seeing the world’s illusive cat, I did not have high hopes – although my expectations naturally remained high.  On my last visit, a Black Leopard leapt from nowhere from about 5 metres in front of us and was gone in a flash.  We shared a small Cantor with a family of 4 from Brussels, Belgium and headed off just after 15:00 in search of the Lord of the Jungle.

With cameras and binoculars poised, we set off in the mid-day sun (temperatures exceeded 45 degrees) and crossed our fingers.  Ranthambore Regional Park is globally recognised as a world leading tiger sanctuary – but like all good nature parks, nature is left to run its course.  Unfortunately, today was not our lucky day, although we saw plenty of deer, birds and even crocodiles – but no tigers.  Still, tomorrow is another day!

12. Apr, 2011

Birthday cake and Taj Mahal

Wow, wow and triple wow.  That sums up today.

It was Rhys’ 17th Birthday today and we would be hard pressed to top this.  I can’t remember what I did for my 17th!

We arrived at the Taj Mahal at about 05:45 (yes, I know what you’re thinking – how cruel I am for getting Rhys up so early!) just as dawn broke.  We were 8th in the queue (admission was at 06:00) and I primed Rhys with military precision – the last time I went to the Taj was on a very (and I mean very) busy Sunday afternoon 2 years ago.

We raced through the gates and secured prime position in front of the Taj – not one single soul impeded our view.  If there’s one recommendation I could give you – get there early, even if you have to crawl there.

I think I have mentioned it already! Wow, wow, wow.  The Taj Mahal (even on the 2nd time) is truly memorable and stunningly beautiful.  I won’t undermine its beauty with my feeble attempt with adjectives!

Rhys and I were so engrossed in the Taj Mahal (who wouldn’t be?) that we’d overlooked the time difference (it was already 12:30 in New Zealand and Karen and Cerys [my daughter] were waiting to wish Rhys a Happy Birthday).  Rhys pulled out his Birthday cards and read them aloud as we sat and gazed at the world’s most famous monument of love.  Of course, the words in his cards are private.  But I freely admit to shedding a tear or two today.

We both agreed how difficult it was to drag ourselves away but we still had much to see today.  We returned to the hotel and scoffed down as much breakfast as we could (I’m sure Rhys would win an Olympic Gold Medal for eating so much food in one sitting) and then “’phoned home” for a string of “Happy Birthdays”.

This afternoon, we went to the “ghost city” of Fatehpur Sikri on the outskirts of Agra and the 3rd of Agra’s 3 world heritage sites.  I’m glad that I read a little about the place before we arrived.  “I’m not a guide, I work here” is the stock phrase and I will admit to using some very “choice” language after a while.  In fact one “guide” said “you don’t have to get angry with me” to me.  But Fatehpur Sikri is well worth the visit and we easily spent 2 hours here – just take a deep breath and ignore the hawkers.

This afternoon, we tried our hardest to top this morning – as if.  The “Baby Taj” at Itmad-Ud-Daulah. Which is such a beautiful monument that if it was located in any other city, it would be given top rankings.

After another battle with Agra’s fly squadron this afternoon, we gave up any chance to sit by the pool and returned to our room, confident that we had a day to remember.

I wasn’t sure how we’d top today off.  So you can imagine how surprised we were when Sandeep and Nikieta knocked on our door and asked if we wanted to go to dinner.  They had traveled down from Delhi to celebrate Rhys’ Birthday!  After a superb Mughal dinner in the Jaypee Palace’s restaurant, Nikieta had a surprise for Rhys – a Birthday cake!  And as Rhys cut the cake, in true fashion. Nikieta rammed Rhys’ face in his cake!

After a few Tequila shots (it was Rhys’ Birthday after all!), we said our goodbyes, safe in the knowledge that we have found 2 new life long friends and had celebrated Rhys’ 17th Birthday in true style!  But tomorrow we were going to “Jungle Book” country to see tigers.

11. Apr, 2011

Agra, here we come!

This morning I had mixed feelings.  On the one hand, I would have liked to have stayed in Delhi longer (as it exceeded my expectations) but on the other hand we were off to Agra today.

After packing (Rhys displayed all of the finesse of a bull in a china shop) and a good breakfast, our driver Ajit collected us from the hotel just after 8am.  We couldn’t leave Delhi without seeing Raj Ghat (where Ghandi was cremated after he was assassinated in 1948), the iconic India Gate (a 42m arch commemorating India’s war heroes) and Rashtrapati Bhavan & Ministry Buildings (very impressive government buildings).

The journey from Delhi to Agra took about 5 hours – about 200 kms, which gives you some idea of the roads, etc.  About 10 kms from Agra, we stopped at Akbhar’s Tomb in Sikandra – what a surprise and gem and well worth an hour and half of our time.  An added side attraction was the wildlife – monkeys and deer roaming free.

We arrived in Agra in the middle of the afternoon and decided to go to Agra Fort rather than go tomorrow.  I’d been before so felt confident that we wouldn’t miss anything and knew we’d have more much more time tomorrow.  I was almost right until 2 of India’s acting icons (Imran Khan & Katrina Kaif) decided to gatecrash our “party” near the end of our visit – or were they here to see Rhys?

We checked into the Jaypee Palace, a 5 star hotel and convention centre.  We were greeted with beautiful flower garlands and a drink, and shown to a very well appointed room.  Unfortunately, we were given a room that was apparently already occupied (how do hotel staff manage such an error?) and were shown another room.  Unperturbed (yes, really) Rhys and I threw our bags into the corner, got changed into our togs and went for a swim – we thought “this is India, we’re Kiwis and we’re on holiday after all!”

But trust us to choose the same venue as Agra’s entire fly squadron this afternoon!  After about 10 minutes swatting flies, we gave up and retired to the luxury of the hotel’s lounge.  I now know how our Aussie cuzzie’s feel!  What a shame, as the pool looked so inviting.

But all was not lost today.  This evening, we had yet another excellent experience of Indian food and service at “Pinch of Spice” on Agra’s Fatehabad Road.

10. Apr, 2011

New Delhi & Match Day

I wasn’t sure what to expect today as it was a Sunday and I know from previous trips to India how busy Sundays are in India.  With my body screaming “give me a break from so much food” I resisted a big breakfast and went for tea and toast – needless to say, Rhys didn’t follow suit and tucked away enough to feed the entire Indian army!

This morning we visited Humayun’s Tomb – Delhi’s first Mughal mausoleum – and without doubt the highlight of my visit so far on this trip.  A “must see” in Delhi.  I could have stayed for hours but we had to fit in Qutub Minar and the Lotus Temple (also known as Bahai Temple) before we headed off to see the Delhi Daredevils vs Mumbai Indians in today’s IPL Match.

To be honest: After visiting Humayun’s Tomb, Qutub Minar didn’t stand a chance.  To be fair, it was impressive (it’s the tallest tower in India) but it started to get busy with locals.  And I think we went through the motions at the Lotus Temple just to say we’d been.  It’s an impressive building (often compared to the Sydney Opera House) but we were packed in like sardines which took away most of the enjoyment.

We experienced the 1st of 3 IPL games today.  Last week, India won the Cricket World Cup (in Mumbai) and today we saw some of those players in action.  Boy, are Indians fanatical about cricket!  Mumbai Indians won easily and we managed to see India’s cricket legend, Sachin Tendulkar, weave his magic.  I can only assume that the only Kiwi on show (James Franklin) didn’t hear us yell “Kia Ora bro’” as he had a quiet game for Mumbai.


09. Apr, 2011

Sarongs, sandstone & cycle rides

After a healthy breakfast of fruit and juices (honestly!) our driver collected us just after 8am to start a full day of sightseeing in Old Delhi.  First stop was the very impressive Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque which overlooks the Red Fort.  As shorts were not allowed inside, Rhys and I had to don a Muslim “sarong” before being allowed inside.  I don’t know how Rhys persuaded me but we paid an additional entrance fee to climb the main tower – and were treated to 360 degree views of Delhi – albeit a little smog covered.

We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to kick up some dust by taking a cycle-rickshaw ride through Chandni Chowk’s historical back-street bazaars.  I felt sorry for the rickshaw driver as he pedalled like crazy around the streets and through tight alley ways – I felt obliged to tip him as he deserved a medal.We had been told that the Red Fort was not worth a visit.  How wrong that advice was!  Officially called Lal Qila (it’s called Red Fort due to the red sandstone used to build it) it has a lot to offer and we spent over 2 hours wandering around in relative peace and tranquility.

It’s been considerably warmer here than in Mumbai so this afternoon we just blobbed out by the hotel swimming pool.  I tried to read a few chapters of my book but ended up watching the inside of my eyelids for a while!

Had dinner with Avnish & his beautiful wife, Aanchal, (the people we met with yesterday lunchtime) at Lazeez Affaire, a popular and traditional Mughlai restaurant.  Every meal we have seems to be better than the previous one!