This trip report covers Mumbai in Maharashtra, Jaipur in Rajasthan, Agra and Delhi in Uttar Pradesh.

Hotels stayed in: Vala Janu in Borivali, Mumbai; Hotel Umaid Bhavan in Jaipur; Hotel Taj Plaza in Agra; Hotel Welcome Palace in Delhi. I travelled in late April through early May 2009.

Mumbai

The Vala Janu Hotel is more for the overnight business traveller than tourists. I hit on this tiny budget hotel because it was close to the homes of family members. Room rate was almost Rs.2000/night ($50). Served the purpose of having a roof over our heads at night if nothing else. Their room service menu was extensive and reasonable as they had a catering service affiliated with the chain of hotels belonging to this group.

Mumbai has improved since our last visit 9 years ago but not to the extent that you can visibly see the changes unless you look for them. The airport looks larger and cleaner compared to the dirty mess it used to be. As we were in India primarily for my niece’s wedding, most of our days in Mumbai were taken up with the many traditional customs that make up Christian weddings in India. Suffice to say that drinking/eating/dancing are the main ingredients.

 Colaba Bombay By happysnapper999
We did find the time to take a long bus ride for photo ops and strolled along the Colaba Causeway, also took a peep at the Leopolds restaurant where the Pakistani terrorists’ went haywire shooting at the customers. I was glad to see that the restaurant was doing a brisk business. Terrorists have always failed to dampen the spirit of Indians.

We also managed to get ourselves on one of the Mumbai trains to experience first hand the sights and sounds of people going about their daily lives. I love the way Indians communicate with complete strangers. During our less than an hour’s journey from North Mumbai to the southern most station of Churchgate, no less than a dozen commuters initiate some dialogue with us. Indian trains have separate compartments for women travellers (they are free to travel in any compartment if they do not want to take advantage of these) and we travelled in one of these. One woman told us to sit by a window seat because we would feel less hot in that area, another told us which side the platform would be on while we peered from left to right trying to guess which side to stay closer to preparing to get off, and another told us that we had got ourselves on a fast train which did not stop at all stations,etc.etc. I was also much amused when a good-looking transgender (hijira) brought my attention to a button that had come loose on my shirt and as I rebuttoned my shirt I said "thanks" and she said "say thanks by opening your purse" in other words "give me a tip". I pretended to misunderstand her as giving her a tip would mean that the group of other transgenders she was travelling with would have crowded around us clamoring for attention. The Hijiras of India depend on the generosity of the wealthy Hindu and Muslim families who invite them to dance and give blessings to the bride/grooms during marriages and they substantiate their meagre wages by occasional begging.

India is truly a mystical land. You will find it hard when it comes to Indian women, especially in cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai and Delhi to distinguish between Hindus, Muslims or Christians. We saw Muslim women wearing nose rings which is primarily a Hindu adornment. We saw Hindu and Christian women wearing salwar/kameez which is primarily a Muslim attire (minus the hijab). Hindus and Muslims will walk into church services with their Christian friends. Inter-marriage is common and has lost the taboo it once had. If only those fundamental muslim nuts from other countries could learn unity and tolerance from the progressive Indian Muslims from these cities, the world would be a better place.

Jaipur

Hotel Umaid Bhavan was the highlight of our trip to Jaipur and we always looked forward to the eventual coming back at nights to this heritage hotel. We happened to arrive in Jaipur bang on for the most ferocious heat wave the State was going through - 43 degrees of scorching, unrelenting, merciless sunrays. No amount of sunscreen lotions or hats did any good whatsoever.

Hotel Umaid Bhavan was great ! My thanks to the posters at Tripadvisor, IndiaMike and other similar sites for the info provided re.this hotel. If there was one thing that both my daughter and myself agreed about 100% during this trip, it was the fact that Umaid Bhavan is all the good things travellers purport it to be, and more.

We arrived at Jaipur airport from Mumbai around early evening of April 27. We had arranged with the hotel for a pickup from the airport at a cost of Indian rupees 350 (approx.C $ 9). We were tired, hungry, screaming for a bath and longing to get to the hotel. However, our pickup was nowhere to be seen. There were a dozen or so drivers with placards waving around looking for their passengers but the driver from Umaid Bhavan was MIA. We even approached a placard bearing driver who was carrying a placard with a name that could have been mispelt for mine, but no luck. After waiting around for 15 mins or so we went back into the airport area to access the communications centre set up there for passengers. Always keep your boarding card handy, without it we would not have been able to gain entry to the airport area after exiting. Phone call to Umaid Bhavan cost us Rs.20 (approx. C 50 cents). Spoke to Ranvijay who happened to be the guy I was corresponding with re. the booking,etc. Ranvijay is one of the sons of the owners and the entire family is active in the hotel/tourist industry. I told Ranvijay about the MIA driver and he said to stay on the line and he would check. I was holding for a good 10 minutes and out of frustration disconnected the line. Ranvijay rang the communications centre just as we were exiting and said that the driver was actually outside waiting for us and asked us to describe what we were wearing so he could identify us.

 City Palace at Jaipur, Rajasthan, India By TimMakins
When we got back to the area with the placard waving guys, the driver from UB approached us and LIED that he was in the crowd all the while. I hit back aggressively and called him a liar to his face. He then said that our flight must have come EARLY. Lesson to be learnt from this for others: Instead of booking through this hotel, just get a pre-paid taxi from the airport itself. It will either cost you the same or less and you will escape the frustration of waiting for your driver or suffering his lies. This particular driver told us that he was the "transport manager" for the hotels owned by the same family and spoke good English. All he had to do was make an apology for his lateness, but if you ever come across a Rajasthani male making an apology and admitting he is wrong, then you are not in the presence of a Rajasthani, you are probably speaking to one of the milder, friendlier Indians from the south western coast of India.

Our hotel room was spacious, clean and extremely pleasing to the eyes. Everything worked. After 5 nights in a Mumbai hotel with a shower stall that was so temperamental, you had to treat it with soapy care at the handles (refused to budge on most occassions) we were more than pleased with the bathroom facilities of the Umaid Bhavan. The furniture in the room was picked with loving care. My daughter is crazy about antique furniture and antiques in general and she had plenty to see and rave about in every nook and corner of this heritage hotel.

The off-season rates we got were good (approx.C$45) Breakfast included, which was served on their rooftop garden restaurant. They make excellent tea and we always had 4/6 cups between us. They also have an ample choice for room service and we tried a few items. Quantities were dished out by a miser in the kitchen, but the quality was good. There is a supermarket nearby. Just walk a couple of blocks on your right as you exit the hotel and you will find the Gokul supermarket. Fresh fruits and more important, snacks and soft drinks are found here. Also, we came across an export dealer in readymade garments. His stuff, according to him, is exported all over the world and to all parts of India. We bought some excellent silk scarves from this guy. In the same lane where the export guy has his store (the store is a basement shop opposite some Bank offices) if you walk further towards the main road, and cross the road and somehow get to the other side in one piece (great roads for people with suicidal tendencies) then look for a tiny little hotel just behind the vegetarian hotel on the main road. Its name is Hotel Badiyal Haveli and if you are a tandoori chicken lover like us, you will find some great tandoori stuff here. Hopefully they have the same cook as it all depends on a cook’s special touch. 

 Jaipur City palace By Lou Wilson
As Jaipur was in the grips of a heat wave, we had to carry litres of water or soft drinks with us on our treks to the countless heritage sites and monuments in and around the city. We stayed in Jaipur for 4 nights/5 days. The first 2 days we moved about on our own and visited the Hawa Mahal, City Palace, Pink City, Jaipur Albert Museum and walked around the city gates with our cameras and mingled with the locals. We sat at junk food places for the coolness and had ice-cold drinks sold at 3 to 4 times the cost at supermarkets. We did people watching. People watched us, in fact shop workers (who were probably bored) came out of their shops to watch us.

Jaipur is an aggressive city with a strain of the most aggressive Hindu mentality I have ever seen in India. As Christians wearing western garb, we solicited angry looks - more so, because we could be identified as Christian Indians as my daughter proudly insisted on wearing her glittering Swarowski cross necklace throughout our treks.

If you take one of the tours offered by travel agencies and the Rajasthan Tourist Corp, you will never get to see the Hawa Mahal like we did. The street where the Hawa Mahal stands is a no parking zone (although the street is parked with cars but those cars belong to the shops lined on both sides of the street). Your tour bus or car will just pass by and linger only a moment or two for photo ops of the facade and that’s that. I would suggest that you plan to do some of the more important sights on your own and then take either a full day or a half day tour with the RTC. We took a half day tour with 2 other people and paid Rs.150 each. Your guide/driver will take you to some stupid dye makingfactory or to some leather store or some other crap store where he will get a commission if you buy something. Just go ahead and lose your temper like I did. Stay in the car and refuse to get out to see the junk. The driver will get the message. If he is thick-skinned or thick-headed, do like I did. I wailed at him in my colorful Hindi and said what he is doing is unforgiveable as he is wasting our time at these money grabbing places instead of showing us what the RTC is supposed to be showing the tourists - heritage sites. Well, he then gave us more time at the Amber fort and other places, took snide looks at my face to check my temperature, but later in the car he took his revenge by telling me that 300 years ago everyone in India were Hindus and not Christians. I told him that our ancestors are from Goa and our Christian backgrounds go well over 400 years and we are not linked to the British but to the Portuguese. However, he brushed my claims aside by giving me a betrayed look. 

This incident as well as some remarks from other Rajasthanis have made me come to the conclusion that Rajasthanis do not get on well with their 9 percent Muslim population nor with their almost non-existent Christian population. Remember, Jaipur is the city where in 2007 more than 70 people were killed by muslim militants who placed home made bombs in scooters and bicyles around the city gates. Another obvious fact is the absence of females in the throngs of people milling around the city. Either they all have cars and refuse to walk with mere mortals, or they stay indoors away from the prying eyes of these hungry Rajasthani males. The only place we saw females was in the Babu Market. We also heard one lone Christian voice haggling for a pair of earrings and wearing western garb. I could not find even one English language newspaper in Rajasthan although India boasts that English is its second language. This desert state of India is no friend of the English language and I suspect of anything English. 

 rickshaw glance By Spanky
Caution about the Rickshaws in Jaipur: The drivers are crooks of the first order. Our biggest expense was transportation in and around Jaipur. For example, if a native Rajasthani is charged Rs.40 for a certain distance, take it for granted you will be quoted 4 times that figure. You can look like a native, talk like one, dress like one - but no escaping these guys, they can smell the Canadian or UK or USA something on you. I hated the shark like feeding frenzy emitting from Rajasthanis. Compared to these guys, the rickshaw drivers in Mumbai are saints. 

From Jaipur we took a State run bus to Agra (6 hours journey). Rs.316/pp. Book your tickets a day ahead to avoid disappointment. On our way to Agra we came upon a horde of forts lined all along the route. It was amazing to note that there were so many regional "rajahs" or "sultans" each one reigning in their own little kingdom and having to defend their properties from each other. We have come a long way - whew !! Battles must have been fought on a continuous basis, given the aggressive nature of the men in this part of India. 

Our bus route briefly passed through the State of Haryana, where for the first time since we set foot in Rajasthan, we saw some signage in English. It was like seeing things clearly after a dust storm. I am lost if I cannot understand what’s put before my eyes and I had not stopped criticizing Rajasthan for their lack of English signage and lack of an English newspaper. My daughter was so peeved with my whining, that she proclaimed she would not holiday with me in a non-English speaking country.

Agra

Our hotel in Agra was one of the worst we have ever had the misfortune to be in. You might say, "what more can you expect from a budget hotel?" I can expect a good 3 star hotel in Florida for the same price, that’s what. The hotel was Hotel Taj Plaza, and believe me a "plaza" it was not. I had read some review from a woman who was so enthralled with the view of the Taj Mahal that she saw sitting up in her bed at this hotel, that I went after the same room she talked about. Well, the view was excellent. The room was not. On entering the hotel room our noses were assaulted with a horrible smell. I realized that the bathroom did not have an exhaust fan and the scents/smells of whoever had occupied the room before us still lingered. The floor was white marble and I could see ants scurrying around. I went into a tantrum (best defence when dealing with hotels misdemeanors) and had the reception send people to spray the room and clean the floor. On enquiring about the exhaust fan, I was told that the city of Agra does not permit the hotels near the Taj Mahal to install exhaust fans. Unbelievable !! Also, no elevators in this hotel. Lucky for us we were here only 2 nights.

 Taj Mahal at Sunrise By commjo
The Taj Mahal has rightly won its place on the list of the seven wonders of the world and it does not have to worry that some other wonder might replace it. It won’t happen, not in our lifetime. My guess is that the eternal love story also adds to the mystic of the Taj. The Taj complex is huge and awesome. The usual photographs we see are of the actual tomb where the sarcophagi of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jehan are placed side by side. However, when you visit the Taj, you will realize that there are imposing gateways to the marble monument and these gateways are a work of art themselves. The view from the rear of the Taj Mahal is another endearing feature of this marvel. You can see the Yamuna river winding its way like a drunken sailor, coming in from the east and making its way to the west. On the river itself you will see tiny little boats and folks of birds flying all in a frenzy. Indian birds always seem to be in a hurry, just like its people. Beyond the river banks you will see as far as the eye can go, field upon field of farming land and beyond that the foggy gray of a mountainous range. Ideal place in the early morning hours for an ordinary person to turn into a verbose poet.

We were so saturated with the splendour of this marvel that we did not want to make our way to Agra Fort, which is a short ride away, where Shah Jehan spent his last years imprisoned by his son. Having our fill of the Main Course the Taj Mahal was enough, and we had no place for the dessert, The Agra Fort. 

We took a walk back to the hotel in the hot scorching sun as vehicles are not permitted within a certain distance of the Taj. On the way back, we stopped for a vegetarian lunch of "Potato Bhaji" (potatoes cooked in spinach and spices) served with Puris (little flat cakes deep fried in oil) and consumed litres of Limca (a lime flavored drink which is a little like lemonade with a sharp tang). 

Foreigners are charged Rs.750 (approx. C$20) for admission to the Taj and Indians are charged Rs.20 only. I fail to see the logic of this huge discrepancy. Although we bought the Rs.20 admission tickets, the guards at the gate tried to deny us entry, presuming rightly that we were non-resident Indians. Yes, we are Indo-Canadian, and I will not admit here in writing exactly what I said and did to gain entry on the "Indians Only" fare. Suffice to say my performance was successful enough to let us roam about the grounds of the Taj to our hearts content. 

The next day by 11:30 am we were at the Uttar Pradesh Bus Depot for journeying to Delhi. Buses to Delhi are once every hour on the hour.Rs.220/pp. The trip takes between 5-6 hours. This was a good way to see the lay of the land and my daughter managed to get several pics of the countryside.

Delhi

We arrived in Delhi well before sunset and took a rick to our hotel in what turned out to be a dirty, depleted part of the city. The entire road was lined with budget hotels. Our hotel was Hotel Welcome Palace which was surprisingly pretty clean given the slum-like look of the environment around it. This area was known as Panjgang (I think it means "Jungle Point) and at one time used to be a Muslim stronghold. We got into a conversation with an old rickshaw driver who told us a bit of the area’s history and divulged that 30 years ago he had sold his house in this neighbourhood for a paltry Rs.1000. If he still had the property, according to him, today he would have been a multi-millionaire. Ah... whether in India, Canada or wherever, whether we are rickshaw drivers or successful stockbrokers, our regrets and our dreams are in sync.

 Red Fort, New Delhi By NewYorkKid
We visited the Red Fort and the place is enormous and imposing. Be prepared to walk around as there are several structures or pavilions all over once you gain entry to the main enclosure. I believe this fort was originally built in 1639 and the moghul kings kept adding their own brand of pavilions inside the fort. The result is a merry medley of beautiful pavilions, as each succeeding moghul king tried to surpass the grandeur of the previous one. Men !! The same throughout the ages.

Just like Mumbai, Delhi too comes across as a contrast between the beautiful and the ugly living side by side. In some parts both cities are beautiful and clean and in other parts the decay is unbelievable. If only the Indian authorities could ban their people from spitting or fine them heavily for this offense. You will see red spittle stains from the pan (betel leaf) which many Indians chew and then spit out the juice all over the roads, and even on the walls of buildings. Terrible, disgusting, sick habit. Indians are also litter bugs and even if a bin is within an arm’s length they will still insist on throwing away litter anywhere and everywhere.

In spite of my criticism of the umpteen number of things amiss in India, all in all we had a great holiday. The dampener came only after we got back to Canada and realized that one of us had been a victim to someone with light fingers. We got robbed of a neat sum of money and we think it happened at the Frankfurt airport lounge where because of the delay in our flight by more than 4 hours and the extreme fatigue and jet lag, both of us conked out and our hand luggage was unsupervised while we snored away. Teaches us a lesson next time we doze off to keep our hand bags under our heads as pillows. One would think that the transit passenger lounge areas would be safe from crooks - not so.