Exploring India (Chapter 1)

There is a lot to catch up on, as over the last month and a half much has happened; close friends from the US have visited, I had my first proper exploration of India, and I met someone very special. Alright, let’s dive in.

About two months ago, I had been invited to attend a Sunday brunch by a colleague of mine. I’ve found that both in Malaysia and in India, an expat Sunday brunch is a common occurrence and a good way to meet other people living in that city. So being still relatively new, I try to say yes to as many outings/invitations as I receive. I arrived to the Renaissance Hotel located in a northern suburb of Mumbai called Powai, to join a group of about 20 people. It was an eclectic mix of people from varied backgrounds and the conversation proved interesting. After about 15 minutes being there, two empty seats remained at my end of the table. Then, a couple arrived to join the group and claim the missing seats. As soon as I saw her, I was smitten. She had a smile that warmed the room and an elegance and beauty that reminded me of Audrey Hepburn. Her name was Elisabetta and as I would find out later, she had been raised in Turino, Italy born to an Italian father and Filipino mother, and spent the last five or so years in Mumbai. But then… I met her boyfriend, and was definitely a bit disheartened. However I felt an undeniable electricity between us, something that I couldn’t dismiss.

Fast forward a month and we started dating. She’s an incredible woman that has a zest for life and a passion for traveling. I’m not going to divulge everything on here, but needless to say I’m excited and she will play a big role in these posts going forward.

In my last post, I included some pictures I took while flying around the Northern part of Mumbai. Included in those pictures, was a shot of a 16th century Portuguese fort on the edge of Mumbai. This was where Elisabetta and I went on our first date. She works in a part of town fairly close by, and she had been to the fort previously so we spent the day walking through the ruins of this former bastion of Portuguese influence in India.

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At the entrance of the fort, an offering was placed in celebration of Dussehra.

As we approached the entrance of the fort, I was surprised that there was no manned entrance selling tickets or even directing traffic. People were able to come and go freely which was actually pretty cool as it let us have free reign over the place. The only downside being that as you walk through the old ruins, you have no idea what you’re actually looking at. This left Elisabetta and I with the ability to come up with often rather imaginative explanations of what the particular mound of stones in front of us, might have once been.

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A view from within one of the three church remnants located inside the fort.

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Within the most interior part of the fort we came across a group of women that were doing the laundry alongside a small well. There were a number of small adjacent villages to the fort.

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The interior of another of the old churches, this one having been kept in better condition and even partially restored.

We spent the morning walking through the ruins, imagining the history these walls had been witness to. After having spent some time now in Mumbai, the swarm of the Mumbai traffic and streets can get to you, so just having a reprieve like this was much needed.

After walking through the old fort, Elisabetta mentioned that there was a small fishing village nearby that was worth checking out. After a short ride, we arrived at the entrance to the village which was nestled against the perimeter of the fort.

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The entrance to the fishing village.

As you walk through the arched entryway, you’re greeted by a colorful array of houses. Pinks, purples, oranges, electric green, and many other colors adorn the houses in the village. As we walked around, taking in the sights of the village, we drew some stares. A lot of them. This was not the type of place that attracted many white faces. The stares were in no way malicious, just curious and probably a bit surprised. As we attempted to make our way to the seaside, wandering through the alleyways and narrow corridors, a disembodied voice from a balcony or window above would correct our course, directing us down another alleyway.

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A fraction of the many thousands of small fish being dried in the warm Indian sun, while a couple of boys play along an adjacent dock.

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We spent some time walking around the docks to look at the boats, nets, and the large quantity of fish being dried in the sun. However, after even just a brief while, the assault on the nostrils was enough that we were ready to move along. Plus, the especially pungent scent wasn’t helping my hunger at all. My hats off to the fishermen that can put up with that odor day in and day out.

The afternoon was spent grabbing something to eat and then visiting a small temple. It was a nice day trip out of the city, providing a chance to see a different side of the area around Mumbai, but what made it really special was the company.

A couple ofmdays later, I arranged a walking tour of old Mumbai for me and Elisabetta. I had done this partly to screen the tour, as a couple of my closest friends would be arriving in a couple days, and also to get a better understanding of Mumbai’s history. We met our tour guide in the afternoon, down in the original part of Mumbai called the Fort area. The tour guide proved knowledgeable and provided some interesting stories about how Mumbai grew into the city it is today. I was surprised by it’s relatively recent history, along with the fact that it was originally seven islands, all now joined in one. The area we walked around was very scenic and at certain times reminded me of a European city. I’m not going to go through the details of the tour, as I wouldn’t want to spoil it for those that will be able to experience it firsthand.

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It was an afternoon well spent, getting a better understanding of the city I now called home. After the tour, we decided to head back home, grab a pizza, and call it a night.

The next evening two of my closest friends, Tim and Katie arrived into Mumbai. This was really exciting for me as it was not only my first visitors to Mumbai, but also an opportunity to catch up with some of my dearest friends that had come over to  visit me and explore India. Their flight arrived Sunday evening and by the time we got back to my place it was around 10 or so in the evening. We proceeded to spend the next several hours talking and drinking, and in general just being a wonderful evening.

Over the next few days, the plan was for Tim and Katie to spend some time adjusting to the jet lag, checking out the sites in Mumbai, and just having us all hang out together to catch up. I lined them up with a few tours and activities during the day while I was at work and then we would meet up in the evening to check out some local restaurants and introduce them to some proper Indian food.

 

Having them in town for a few days was incredible, and I can’t adequately describe on here the enjoyment I felt by having such close friends come to check out Mumbai and stay with me.

On Wednesday, Tim and Katie flew out to Delhi and I would join them there on Thursday evening after work. I arrived late Thursday and met up with them at the hotel. We grabbed a drink and they brought me up to speed on the sights and sounds of Delhi. I’d visited Delhi once before for work, but was unable to spend any time exploring, where they had been able to check it out over the last couple days. One thing they noticed upon their arrival was the large contingent of businessmen and diplomats from Africa staying at the hotel and other hotels, as it had proven difficult to find room availability. Apparently their visit coincided with a large Indian-African summit being held in the capital as Indian politicians and businessmen made their best sell to gain access to the treasure trove of African resources. With the largest populations in the world, both India and China are fiercely competing  for access to the African materials both need to sustain their consumer demands. An interesting global event to be present for, which will have a lasting impact in the years to come.

We woke up early Friday morning to work out and then replenish all those calories lost, by eating an especially big breakfast. Afterwards, our car was waiting outside (we rented a car and driver to take us from Delhi to Agra and ultimately to Jaipur as the train travel between these areas was somewhat limited both in availability and times) so we loaded up and made our way to the Red Fort in Delhi. This ancient structure is situated in the heart of Delhi and upon first setting our eyes on it, we were surprised at the size. Our driver seemed surprise that we wanted to stop and see more of it than what appeared out of the car window, but we persisted and he pulled over. We made our way in through the first gate and then wandered through a long line of shops which comprise the outermost wall. As we emerged into the center of the fort, the true enormity of the place became apparent. You could not see from one side to the next. As we approached a sort of large gatehouse, which interestingly enough had no gates to either side, we saw people handing over tickets. I approached one of the guys working there and asked if we needed tickets, and he kind of incredulously asked in broken English, “you no have ticket?” Taking that as a cue that apparently we needed tickets to not only continue our walk but even just to be where we located, I said okay and we started to walk on. We soon noticed that you could just as easily walk around the side of the gatehouse to continue on with our self-guided tour, but we were quickly chased down by the ticket taker. He was furiously motioning back towards the entrance for us to purchase tickets and a small crowd of curious Indian onlookers had soon gathered around us. We nodded, saying we understood and started to make our way back. We had apparently missed the ticket booth.

At this point, the morning hours were waning and we had a four hour drive ahead of us to Agra, so we were left wondering if we should walk back to the entrance to buy a ticket or just move along to Agra. Our driver had been saying that this fort was similar to the one in Agra and frankly the interior of the Red Fort, while enormous, was not that captivating. We decided we would continue on to Agra.

The next four hours or so were spent in the car, watching the landscape change and seeing small villages and farmers dot the countryside. Due to the enormity of India and its lacking infrastructure, it takes time to get anywhere. Most of the top tourist destinations seem to be quite far from the nearest airports so when trying to see as many different destinations within India as possible you have to come to grips with the fact that you’ll be spending a good amount of time either in a car or by train. The latter of which I have yet to experience, kind of ashamedly so, but is on my shortlist of experiences. Anyway, we spent the next four hours talking and just taking in the scenery.

When we arrived into Agra, the first thing that struck me (not literally) was the number of monkeys that roamed across the rooftops, bridges, and telephone poles. They were everywhere!

We made our way directly to the Agra Fort and soon saw that while both the Red Fort in Delhi and the Agra Fort were primarily made from red sandstone, there the similarities ended.

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Notice the monkey crawling up on the left side while a green parakeet flies to the right.

The Agra Fort was in far better shape inside and out than the Red Fort, and also significantly more interesting from an architectural perspective. We had opted to go for a guide as the cost was minimal and he gave us a better understanding of what we were looking at. However, a common theme we realized among the tour guides we used, no matter which city, is a pitch they inevitably give at the end of a tour to check out [insert unique regional product here] local shop which is always the best. If you’re not in the mood to shop, it can be a bit tiresome to keep saying no but is also kind of comical how they all do it.

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The entrance to the Agra Fort.

As we entered the fort, our guide gave us a briefing on the built-in defense mechanisms of the fort. The first layer was a crocodile-infested moat (no longer) which could be only be crossed via a drawbridge. If you could get past that, you were greeted by a path which took an abrupt turn to the right and then back to the left which was barred by another gate. This was designed accordingly. because during the time the fort was occupied (late 1500’s) enemies would employ elephants to crush gates. However, by eliminating a straight path, the elephants would be unable to break down the second barrier.

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The primary hall the emperor would use to hold court with the locals to address grievances. In the distance you can see a large temple which is currently inaccessible to the public as the military occupies approximately 80% of the Agra Fort.

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Katie feeding one of the chipmunks that made sure to not bite the hand that feeds them. 😉

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The forts’ history dates back to the 11th century, but it’s current structures were largely built in the 16th century. It was home to Shah Jahan, most well known for building the Taj Mahal as a memorial for his deceased second wife. From a white marble palace within the fort, he could look out at the Taj Mahal being constructed over the 8 years it took to build it.

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A couple monkey pals enjoying the sunset.
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The white marble structures were largely built during the reign of Shah Jahan, a famed Mughal emperor and grandson of Akbar.
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Women inside the fort dressed in traditional clothing.
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Tim and Katie with our tour guide, whatshisname, showing one of the intricately designed rooms within the fort. The designs left on the wall used to have colorful stones and metals inset in them, but were destroyed by subsequent rulers.
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One of the many monkey guardians of the Red Fort. I’ll also say, these guys all seemed to be smuggling two grapefruits between their legs.

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The place was beautiful and seeing the contrast of the red sandstone with the white marble was stunning. Our tour guide proved knowledgeable and helped paint the picture of the interesting events that transpired in the place. I’ve noticed a common theme between all the forts and palaces that I’ve visited and that is all the rulers, whether in Cambodia, Thailand, or India, all made sure to include accommodations for their harems!

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the fort, watching the setting sun cascade across the red sandstone walls of the fort. Without the hustle and bustle of Mumbai or Delhi, it was a beautiful way to spend the afternoon.

With the Taj Mahal being closed on Friday, we decided that we would spend the evening having drinks and dinner at the ITC Agra, our hotel which was close to both the Agra Fort and Taj. Our plan was to get up early on Saturday to see the sunrise at the Taj.

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Having drinks at the ITC Agra. We’re essentially laughing because this guy took at least 20 photos and it just became comical after a certain point.

We woke up at 5:45 am so we could be out the door and on our way to the Taj by 6:30. The morning was cool and a light fog blanketed the ground. Our car dropped us off close to the entrance and it was about a 10 minute walk to get to the ticket booth. Along the path, monkeys bounded across the walkway and adjacent grounds, hunting for their morning meal. I said this before, but the number of monkeys in Agra really surprised me.

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These monkeys pretty much ran the place.

Upon arriving at the ticket booth we purchased our tickets and made our way over to the entrance line. Apparently the Taj did not open until sunrise (not one minute before) and we weren’t the only ones with the idea of visiting the Taj at sunrise. Once they opened the gates, we were then moved through the queue like cattle at an auction and slowly made our way through security. After finally emerging from the security screening, we rounded the corner and got our first glimpse of the Taj as the sun crept onto its pearl walls. The Taj Mahal has a lot of hype surrounding it, and for me, it absolutely lived up to it.

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The place is just so incredibly photogenic. And the closer you get the more impressed you become with the level of detail that blankets every aspect of the building. Sanskrit writing from the Koran adorns the facade, along with intricate flowers made of emeralds and other precious stones. It is both an engineering and artistic feat. Highly recommended for any visit to India, all done as a memorial for a lost love.

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Another monkey just hanging out behind the Taj with the Yamuna River in the background.

The morning was spent walking around the grounds and soaking in all the details of the place. I took many, many more photos but a big part of that is because you get so swept up in the beauty of the place. It was an incredible stop.

After spending a couple hours on the grounds, we headed back to the hotel, stopping first at a local place for a filling Indian breakfast. We then got our stuff, threw it in the back of the car, and began the 5 hour ride to Jaipur.

The road between Jaipur and Agra was far less developed and grabbing some sleep along the way proved a bit challenging. From my tenure in Mumbai, I’ve become almost accustomed to the persistent honking and sudden decelerations that occur constantly while driving but I think my friends were a little less prepared. Regardless, we enjoyed the opportunity to have meandering conversations (did you know that one of JFK’s sister Rosemary had a lobotomy when she was 23?! I didn’t!) as we we passed the time and watched the landscape change.

Soon enough we arrived into Jaipur which is nestled in the hills of central Rajasthan and provided a very distinct landscape from the other areas of India I had seen. The main attraction we wanted to see in Jaipur was the Amer Fort, but due to the timing of a tour we wanted to take, we decided to see it the following morning. So we spent the afternoon just driving and walking around the old city.

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Jal Mahal or the Water Palace in Jaipur was initially built as a getaway for the local maharajah and his family. It now sits mostly unused in the center of a large man-made lake.
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Tim and Katie walking through one of the many busy bazaars which dot the old city center of Jaipur.

The city is known as the Pink City, due to the terra cotta-like pink color which adorns the building facades in the old part of the city. In the late 1800’s the Prince of Wales (later to be King Edwards) was visiting the city and the ruling Maharaja decreed that all the buildings would be painted pink in preparation for his visit, a color associated with hospitality. The color stuck, and the government eventually made it a law that buildings within the old city walls must maintain the color. The look and feel of the place really evokes a sense of old India as we spent the afternoon wandering the streets and taking in the sites.

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A view from Iswari Minar Swarga Sal, a minaret tower which provide a 360 view of the surrounding Jaipur. This is a view looking back at the City Palace and the old part of Jaipur.

After getting a feel for the city, we eventually made our way to the hotel we would be staying in, the ITC Rajputana, a lovely hotel located just a few minutes drive from the old city center.

Prior to our trip to Jaipur, I had mentioned to some coworkers that I would be headed to Jaipur and if they had  suggestions. The unequivocal answer was Chokhi Dhani, so we decided that after checking in and dropping off our stuff, we would be headed there to make an evening of it.

Chokhi Dhani has many parts to it, but the largest is a replica of a traditional Rajasthani village. Within this 5 acre walled village there are several different activities and shows to attend, such as traditional Rajasthani dance (though when we went and joined the dancers they just repeated “money” over and over all while in front of a sign that said please don’t encourage tipping) or even camel riding.

When you enter the village you get a bindi on the forehead, or more commonly referred in the West as a red dot/mark on the forehead. As you enter and pay admission, you can choose between several dining options. While we preferred the traditional Rajasthani thali dining option, we opted for the main buffet option, primarily because they served drinks in that section.

Walking into the compound, it was staggering how large it was, and there appeared to be activities and performances in every direction. As it was already a bit late, we decided we would head straight away to get something to eat and then explore the sights afterwards. Unfortunately, the signs weren’t too clear about where our dining section was located and every time we stopped for directions they just pointed in a general direction as if we couldn’t miss the area we would be eating in. They were wrong. It was easily missable and we did so, several times. However, persistence and a hungry stomach paid off. Eventually we found the dining area and enjoyed a nice Indian dinner with live musical performances of traditional Rajasthani songs (I realize that I neglected to say the state Jaipur is located in, is Rajasthan).

Dinner was good, and we were soon ready to explore the performances and activities that awaited us within the village. The choices were nearly overwhelming at first as there appeared to be a small booth or stage every few feet, each featuring a different activity. We decided one of the first stops would be a visit with the mystics. The fortune tellers, palm readers, and astrologers awaited.

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I could hardly believe what riches my fortune held. Apparently in order for it to come true though I would have to get rid of my prized white seashell collection. (editors note: I don’t have a white seashell collection, prized or otherwise). 
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Tim also astounded by the greatness in store for me.
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A look of skepticism.

While I engaged in both the palm and astrology readings in jest, I did enjoy the whole thing. I particularly enjoyed when my friend Tim was having his palm read in front of his wife Katie, and was told that he would be married twice. They then read Katie’s palm and essentially said she was an angry person, which could not be further from the truth. We all had a good laugh about what Tim’s next wife would be like and why Katie was so angry.  I was also told that a big life event would happen in July of 2016 for me, so I might as well go ahead and put it on my calendar.

After we had our fun with the mystics, we spent the rest of the evening wandering around the grounds, checking out the different activities. Overall, we were on the later side as several places seemed to be winding down, but it was still a fun place to visit.

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Befriending a camel. My charm was lost on the camel.
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Tim and Katie conquering the mighty stead. 

The village was starting to shutdown so we made our way to the exit and decided to call it a night. We needed to get our rest as the last day in Jaipur was to be a big one.

So the reason we held off visiting the Amer Fort on our arrival into Jaipur was due to a transportation issue. What issue you ask? Well, the Amer Fort is located on the top of a hill and all cars/rickshaws drop you off at the base of the hill leaving a long walk up to the entrance of the fort. However, it’s not that we were unwilling to walk up the hill. We just wanted the walking to be done by an elephant and us on its back. This mode of transportation is only available in the mornings, so we adjusted our plans accordingly.

The landscape around the fort is rather beautiful and significantly different to the other areas I had seen within India. The hilly and desert-like atmosphere creates a stark contrast to some of the colorful surrounding buildings. Then as you turn the corner and see the fort it looks almost as if it was carved directly from the hills.

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As we arrived at the base entrance to the fort we were nervously looking down at our watches, as we had been told the elephants were only available during the morning and our window of opportunity was closing in the next few minutes. Luckily, we got there in time and were able to easily find a ride.

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Just a fraction of the many elephants that make the trek up to the top of the hill each day. 
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My ride awaited. This guy rocked the hat far better than I did last night.
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Tim and Katie hopping a board their ‘phant. I think their driver was saying, “bro, I got this. You’ve never ridden an elephant like mine.” Meanwhile, Tim looks skeptical.

The ride up was incredibly scenic. At the base of the valley were lush, colorful gardens and every so often another elephant would go lumbering by on its way down. It was such an incredible Indian moment, and something I’ve never experienced anywhere else. I’d highly recommend the elephant ride to anyone.

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Making my way to the entrance of the Amer Fort. Not going to lie, I look at home on top of that ride.

Prior to our arrival at the Amer Fort, I believe we were all a bit concerned that it would be quite similar to the Agra Fort. But those concerns were soon allayed as it became evident that the Amer Fort was entirely its own experience.

Similar to Agra Fort we decided to spring for a tour guide to gain the full immersion into the history of the place and it was worth it. Though, like the Agra Fort, we had to persistently decline opportunities to go shopping afterwards.

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A view looking down into one of the floating gardens at the base of the fort.
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An interior courtyard at the Amer Fort.

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The forts origins date back to the 900’s, and has been built up several times since then, with the majority of the current structure dating back to the 16th century. Within the fort are many incredible spaces such as the Sheesh Mahal or mirror palace, which has thousands of small mirrors inlaid into the walls and ceilings. When occupied at night under candlelight the room is said to shine like a starry night sky.

We made our way through the fort, exploring wing after wing of the sprawling compound learning about the cooling systems (water within the walls, which was quite revolutionary for its time) and the layout of the rooms (of course they made room for the concubines). As we were walking along I heard a faint music in the background and started to get excited. In helping put together the trip of Jaipur there was another Indian experience I really wanted, not only for myself but for my friends as well. We had done the elephant ride, and now I really wanted to see a snake charmer…. and the Amer Fort did not disappoint. As we rounded the corner we were greeted to this.

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We made our way close to the charmers and they of course invite you to sit down next to them to get as close and personal as you’d like. Personally, I’m not much of a snake guy. But I badly wanted to see a full hooded King Cobra wagging back and forth out of a wicker basket.

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The fort proved to be an incredible place to visit and afford an entirely different vantage point of India. After spending a full morning there, we made our way back into town to grab lunch. That afternoon I had to unfortunately head back to Mumbai, but my friends Tim and Katie were to continue on their journey to Jodhpur and Udhaipur, followed by a final stop in Mumbai. There is far too much left to convey in one post so I will leave it there, at the end of Chapter 1. To be continued shortly.

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4 Comments

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  1. Son, your latest posting was well worth the loooonnnng wait. For several reasons, clearly your gift with both the pen and the lens, and second your revelation of a new person in your life. I think that is worth adding a portrait of the two of just the two of you… just saying! well Done!

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  2. Evan!!! Finally, an update! This was worth the wait. Your talent with the camera is rapidly increasing. Your shots are set up beautifully and carry so much emotion with them. Bravo!! The Taj Mahal photos took my breath away. Congrats on your new special friend. 🙂 Looking forward to Part 2!!

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  3. Evan-

    Be safe, Have Fun and Seize the day my friend!

    Regards,

    Bob

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  4. Evan mate, I concur completely with you dad, your writing is so eloquent and descriptive and your eye for a good shot both in composition and technically is to be applauded and of course we are very happy for you and Ellie

    Like

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