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Kumbaya

A lot of the bad stories get told over and over again about Hindu-Muslim relations. There are a lot of truths in tales of rioting and murders. No one who has lived in Mumbai – or New York – could possibly try to minimize the devastation that can occur when religions collide.

But oftentimes these stories overshadow the day to day relations that are happening around us.

So one of the things I’ve really enjoyed about living here is watching people co-exist in a country that has seen so much turmoil over religion. From partition through the assassination of Indira Ghandi to the Bombay riots of 1992 up to the attacks here two years ago, it hasn’t been an easy ride. Yet I watch day in and day out as everyone seems to somehow make it work in a population where the majority (Hindus) are only 67% of the populace.

This has been most apparent to me in Dharavi, where everyone is literally living on top of each other and where there is incredible religious and cultural diversity. Dharavi was the horrifying epicenter of the Bombay riots 20 years ago but today it seems like there must be some improvement. I go into meetings and see Hindu women teaching Muslim women about their sexuality without any judgment. I see women wearing hijabs lay their heads on the shoulders of women in saris. I can’t explain it and I certainly would never profess to have a deep understanding of this community’s feelings about religion (that would be a bit naive) but I can only report what I see and it’s oddly comforting.

But the best thing to watch is what happens on 90 feet road on a Friday afternoon. In the middle of a crowded, dirty, hot and chaotic slum that is populated by a majority Hindu population, one side of the artery road is cleared for prayers. It causes traffic and confusion and adds time to everyone’s travels. But for just a few minutes hundreds of Muslim observers are given time to pray together in a place where there certainly isn’t space for a mosque large enough – or even homes large enough – to accommodate worshipers. It’s a small thing. But it’s not something I can imagine being allowed even in New York, the supposed home of liberalism and tolerance, where an out-of-the-way mosque’s construction was recently protested.

It’s a Pollyanna view. I’ve certainly also been privy to conversations detailing why our Pakistani neighbors on the 5th floor must be horrible or how Muslims don’t shower (no, really) and I’ve had to stand back and wonder whether I’ve been reverted to some bizarre version of the 1950’s in a racist but Indian state. It’s a reality. And there’s certainly a lot of religious turmoil happening outside of India (understatement of the century). But I’m going to keep believing that things are a little bit better than some might make it out to be

And its certainly a view that is reinforced by seeing it. So for now I’ll let some video do the talking for me. It really is a spectacular sight.

 

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I sometimes forget that only a few months ago India was a complete unknown to me – I think and behave now as though I belong or that I have a deeper understanding of my adopted country. I haggle and head-bobble to the point of surprising (and maybe even disturbing) friends who aren’t accustomed to my adopted Indian ways.

But of course, every time I think I’ve got it all figured out, India reminds me that I know nothing.

Coming to Tamil Nadu was like a kick in the gut – my Hindi means nothing here in a Tamil-speaking stronghold. After being assured by everyone up and down that there was no possible chance of rain post-monsoon, we encountered an afternoon storm. Familiar food staples have been upended by a world of thalis and dhosas. Despite having spent time in South India in Kerala, Tamil Nadu seems like an entire world away from safe familiar Bandra – and every Tamil I meet is happy and eager to explain to me how different they are from ‘northerners’. I have to say, it feels amazing to be reminded that whatever Indians might call me-  white person, foreigner, gora or ‘Canadian,’ (what one Tamil person seemed to think the Tamil word was for Caucasian) – as a perpetual outsider I will always have quite a lot to learn and be surprised by.

Sri Rangan temple

Our time in Tamil Nadu has centered around seeing temples- another thing I thought I could no longer be surprised by. After Angkor Wat and Borobudur and Prambhanan and Ranakpur I sort of thought I’d run the gamut. But because I’m traveling with two friends who hadn’t been to India before I thought that temples were a pretty important stop – and I’m lucky they let me come along with them, because South Indian temples are unique and powerful unto themselves. Over the last four days we explored temples in Trichy, Tanjore and, today, the epic Meenakshi temple of Madurai.

All of us on a roof facing one of the Vimana's of Sri Rangan

In Trichy we saw the Sri Ranganthaswamy Temple (Or Sri Rangan for short, thankfully). Dedicated to the god Vishnu, it’s a massive temple within walls within other walls over 156 acres that has been continuously built over the last 1,000 years. The most recent tower was only completed in 1987, but others date back to what is believed to be the 11th century. We got all of this information from a guide named ‘Bruce Lee,’ who insisted on telling us serious stories about Hinduism interspersed with showing us his favorite Karma Sutra carvings.  He also showed us how to be blessed by an elephant representing the god Ganesh – I told M and K they’re probably going to have to fib on their customs forms when asked whether they’ve been near livestock (see video below to watch the elephant in action!).

Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjore

Our next temple was the Brihadeeswara Temple in Thanjur, dedicated to Shiva. Built in 1010 during the Chola Empire, this UNESCO World Heritage site boasts India’s tallest Vimana, or temple tower. Standing under the sandy-colored intricately carved granite stone, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the structure – how could anyone reach those heights and carve stones so finely without scaffolding or machinery? These thoughts kept getting distracted by the dozens of tourists hounding us to take our picture – I was once again reminded of how bizarre we must seem. Two white women and a white man wandering around their temple, snapping photos and laughing amongst ourselves. One man wanted to try on M’s sunglasses while children crowded to look at the magical photos popping up on the back of K’s camera. It was a funny sensation to be among the familiar- two of my oldest friends – while being treated like the most interesting oddities around.

Exterior of Meenakshi Temple

But we certainly saved the best for last.

Interior of Meenakshi Temple

In Madurai we got to see Tamil Nadu’s most renowned and beloved place of worship – the Meenakshi Temple. We were delighted to learn this was the only Indian Hindu temple devoted to a woman, Meenakshi (or Parvati), the wife of Shiva. It is one of the largest Hindu temples in the world and certainly one of the most elaborate. While the structure was built in the 17th century, it is believed a temple has stood in this spot since at least the 7th century – and today it represents the center of the sprawling, dusty, decidedly non-colonial city of Madurai.

Getting a bracelet knotted

It was hard for me to ever imagine a city crazier than Bombay, but I think Madurai is it. It is loud and bumpy and often incredibly over-run with advertising and run-down buildings – but it has also proven to be a place where M, K and myself have all relished in meeting and interacting with a population that wants to display their (self-described) southern hospitality.  Everyone we meet – even the people blatantly trying to sell us something – has wanted to convey to us that their portion of India has as much to offer as the more heavily-trafficked north. And our guide, Natarajan, at the Meenakshi Temple, made it a point of pride to try and make sure no one took advantage of us or sold us anything too expensive. It was wonderful to take in the beauty of the temple, but I think the highlight by the end was the jokes we could share with the tailors we were haggling with or the bracelet tied on our hands (for no money! no money!) by a shop-keeper.

Tomorrow we are leaving Tamil Nadu to go into the mountains of Kerala. It will be a sharp departure from the crazy city into the lush plantations, but I feel glad just to have gotten this taste of the south. And if I forget, I’ll be able to look down at the bracelet securely knotted on my arm and remember the place that helped jolt me out of my own India bubble.

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Kerala

In Kerala you can almost feel the world creaking to a halt and demanding that you stop along with it. Whether standing to watch waves crash against a cliff or gazing into the hazy distance of the backwaters, all you can do is just stand still and watch as the beauty of the world happens right in front you, slowly but deliberately.

The view from our hotel in Varkala

After running around Sri Lanka, arriving on the beach in Varkala was a welcome change. I’m not normally a person who likes vacationing on beaches, but Varkala was a little moment of perfection.

Fishermen with their nets in Varkala

We were staying on Odayam beach, away from the tourist-hub on the cliff and a place where fisherman outnumbered tourists.  I found myself watching them, wondering what they must think of this recent foreign infiltration of their beaches. They didn’t seem fazed – some fisherman sat carefully carving and piecing together oars, while others tied up fishing line.  The small bungalows and boutique hotels that had started to pop up around them didn’t change the work they had clearly been doing for generations.

We spent the day in the most relaxing of fashions – staring at the sea, swimming in the sea, and eating.

Incredible huge prawns

The fisherman certainly weren’t for show – at night when you stroll along Kerala’s cliff-front hub (if you walk a little bit off course you’ll find yourself in a straight long drop down into the sea), you can survey the wares at each restaurant because they keep the seafood right out front. You can make a decision based on what you see – does that marlin look fresh to you? How about this barracuda at the restaurant over here? Or how about the huge tiger prawns that look more like lobsters? You pick your food after looking at it up close and then the price haggling begins. It’s quite a way to start a dining experience before you’ve even sat down.

It was a much-needed respite from reality. Swimming in the waves and having a cup of tea looking out at the horizon it felt a little bit like we had found our own secret place in the world. I would have been sorry to go except that I was even more intrigued by Kerala’s more famous attraction: the backwaters.

View of the backwaters from the tip of our boat

Having read Arundhati Roy’s the God of Small things many years ago, I’ve always been intrigued by the depth and beauty of her descriptions of the Keralan backwaters. I had always wanted to languidly cruise through the canals and jungles I’d pictured in my mind. I worried that the proliferation of backwater tours and houseboats might ruin the experience – but I was ready to take the chance.

We boarded our very own houseboat early in the day and began slowly making our way along the backwaters. The beauty of this experience is that there is literally nothing to do but sit and gawk at the beauty of it all. As the boat cruised along we attempted to read or have conversations, but they continually got interrupted by someone saying, “Oh wait, but look at THAT”. And the ‘that’ they were usually pointing at was a far-reaching landscape.

A view of the backwaters as the sun goes down

The backwaters look like something you’d only see in a movie that has an other-worldly setting. Small plants grow up in the middle of each canal or lake, as though they are rooted only in water. We found ourselves first in an expansive lake with palm trees and bird-filled paddies in the distances and then later in smaller canals, bordered on either side by a jungle of trees growing straight from the water.

A woman doing laundry in her backwater-adjacent home

In many of these canals entire villages flourished, their pace of life dictated by the narrow strips of land they lived on and the water-buses that ferried them and their neighbors around. Like the Varkala fishermen, I wondered how odd it must be for these people living this rural, water-logged existence to see the ever-growing stream of boats with white people staring back at the beauty of their lives. But our captain seemed to think (however biased he must have been) that the growth in the industry was positive, since many of these people now were able to get higher-paying jobs in tourism.

A typical houseboat on the water

It was a bizarre experience, sleeping on a boat while mostly trying to avoid the onslaught of mosquitos that had come as night fell. But enjoying breakfast and a cup of tea in the morning light was really priceless. I could understand why the place had inspired such vivid prose from Roy.

We left the boat and headed for our last stop – Kochi, an old Portuguese colony at Kerala’s northern end. It was a sudden change from the rural waters, but it was made all the more easy after being welcomed at Sui House, a 3-room bed-and-breakfast run by a wonderful family who also specializes in selling antiques (so you can imagine how beautiful the furniture was). After an explanation of the sights to see we went exploring.

The beautiful Sui House

The main attraction, for us at least, in Kochi was the city’s 16th century Paradesi synagogue (The oldest in the ‘Commonwealth,’).

Inside the synagogue, courtesy of Creative Commons since no photos were allowed

It was a strange sight seeing a colonial-era Jewish house of worship in the middle of an Indian town, but it was beautiful. It was made funny by the fact that everyone calls the area where the synagogue is located, “Jew Town.” I guess that would explain why the owner of the hotel had no problem asking, “Are you Jew?” The population has dwindled (it’s estimated less than 20 Jews still live in Kochi) but enough people have stayed along to make sure the synagogue remains – and it was really beautiful. Kochi is the kind of city you imagine colonial India to be – still as crazy as ever, but with the architectural and culinary flourishes left over from a past era. It was a fitting way to end our trip.

As we left Kerala behind to go back to Mumbai I couldn’t help but try to spend my last moments soaking it all in, because that to me was the best of Kerala: taking the beauty from the beaches to the city and enjoying it at the pace Keralans seem to demand from its visitors. I hope I can someday make my way back to stand still and enjoy once again.

(Also – there are a few new signs added from this trip to the Amazing Signage tab at the top, if anyone was hoping for more!)

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One of my favorite – and simultaneously least favorite – elements of living in India is that I’m constantly being forced out of my comfort zone. And after living here a while my comfort zone now includes dirt and poverty and sweat and chaos. But yes, even after getting used to the glaring differences between the US and Mumbai there’s still a plethora of minor divergences that challenge me to let them get in the way – or conquer them and feel victorious.

I mention this because, as I wrote about previously, I agreed to do some video work for a group of non-profits and educators who were holding a conference on innovation, called InspirED. Unlike some of the other projects I’ve agreed to, this one seemed easy: I had a budget, they were overseen by great organizations, we eventually had top-notch equipment donated and, frankly, they were inside a real building (not something I ever would have considered a factor before moving here).

Of course the ‘what could go wrong’ attitude probably doomed me from the start.

After months of planning for and shooting in schools, my emergency trip home was needed right as the conference was happening. I missed the whole thing.

I tried to mitigate the circumstances by writing a long email to the people who were going to take over filming that detailed what every camera should be doing at every moment.

But when I got back, the challenges stood in front of me like a solid brick wall: the film school that had donated the equipment couldn’t figure out how to get the tapes onto a hard drive into a format that was readable. After a month of back and forth, once I got the material I realized that 90% of what I had asked to be filmed wasn’t. I had wanted to do multiple videos, one especially that followed some of the teachers I had interviewed before the conference. But they hadn’t been interviewed. The only interviews anyone had done were a series of two minute “how did you like the conference” interviews.

Let’s just say it wasn’t what I had in mind.

To make matters more complex, practically everyone in India uses Final Cut Pro (the Mac editing software). I was only used to Avid – but there wasn’t one to be found here (it’s MUCH more expensive than Final Cut). This was the ultimate wrenching from my comfort zone. On an Avid I could edit the video together in a second. In Final Cut, I’d barely know where to find my video. However, for this project and almost all future ones I’ll have to use Final Cut, so I knew I’d have to suck it up and learn it.

But this was the hand I had been dealt. It was such an India-type problem: you don’t have exactly what you want, everything’s a little broken, but we’re going to pull it all together anyway.

I wrote a script around the interviews that we had. When I got to Film City to edit, I had a 10-minute crash tutorial in the differences between Final Cut and Avid. I got to work.

It was slow goings at first. The computer shortcuts I knew in my sleep were no longer guiding me. Every few minutes I’d come on a problem that my short tutorial hadn’t covered and I’d have to test out a few theories or go to the help manual.

But eventually, I got the hang of it. It wasn’t so different to Avid once you learned the keyboard differences. And even though it took six hours to make a three-minute video (very slow for me), I did it. I did it.

I felt like jumping for joy when my draft was finished. It looked good. I had done it in Final Cut. I had a legitimate draft that I could send out.

I’ll have to get comments and go back and finish up the editing. But it was a moment of victory in a world where nothing is ever as easy as you expect. I’m used to working in a realm of professional equipment, with people to guide me and someone there to fix any malfunction or difficulty. But here, when you do figure it out on your own, you get the feeling you can do anything. This was not my comfort zone. But man, am I glad I was pushed out of it.

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As I wrote about previously, my friend B is getting married in March and she is (bravely) doing her wedding invitations here in Mumbai.

This is a process that has some clear positives and negatives – the main positive is, not surprisingly, that it is much, much cheaper to do invitations here. The drawbacks are that the process takes longer and sometimes you fear that important elements will get lost in translation.

But after a lot of searching B had settled on Nikunj – the only person on ‘wedding invitation street’ who spoke English well and seemed to understand what she wanted. He seemed to find us amusing enough to put up with the multiple meetings, emails, calls and tweaks that it took to get it right. I certainly enjoyed watching the process unfold – its amazing the difference between American and Indian wedding invitations.

But eventually it came together: the design was set, the paper was picked and the colors agreed upon. It was time to print.

Early on in the process Nikunj had offhandedly mentioned that they did the printing nearby and it was all by hand. We were instantly excited at the idea of seeing invitation-making in action. So Nikunj had agreed to allow us to go to the printers with him.

We set off not really knowing what to expect. We walked up a steep ladder into a muggy room with 5 or 6 sweaty men – some were standing around, others diligently working on some letterhead. It was actually incredible – one by one they were making company letterhead with ink that they would briskly push across a silk-screen. B asked Nikunj if this was expensive letterhead – after all, getting each page done by hand must cost extra.

“No, this is normal letterhead,” he replied, waving away the question as though there wasn’t any reason to think human labor was costly.

And once again there was that reminder of the cost of doing business in India. To have two actual people sitting at a contraption manually putting out these pages was infinitely cheaper than buying and maintaining the machine that could do it without any help.

But we soon got sidetracked once we caught sight of the silk-screen for B’s invitations. We watched as the printer carefully started gluing paper down – he was creating a corner to align each invitation so that everything would be straight. This was not a high tech process.

What B really wanted was to check that the ink color matched her swatch – so we stood by and saw as the men mixed ink together, bit by bit until the colors eventually fit the swatch. You could tell this was something they could do without really thinking about it. Or as Nikunj said, “they can mix the colors with their eyes closed.”

Modern ink was being poured onto machines that clearly had been used for generations. The silk-screens were carefully cleaned by hand after each test batch of color. Fans whirred away as we stood watching. I was glad we’d been allowed into this very specific world of printing.

But I was also a little bit disappointed when, as we were walking out, Nikunj mentioned that in a few years he hoped to be able to buy machines to do the printing. His logic was that it would be faster. In the monsoon they wouldn’t have to wait for everything to dry. There would never be imperfections.

I couldn’t help but think of the men who could mix ink with their eyes closed and our wonder at watching them whisk the ink over the paper like magic. Maybe that’s glorifying a sweaty workshop a little too much. But I started to feel like we were getting to watch an art that may not be around for too much longer.

I think it might be time for me to order some new stationary.

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My motto in Mumbai is to say yes to anything I’m invited to because you just never know what to expect in this city – and it’s almost always a good story.

So in that vein, last night and today I found myself in two scenarios that anyone who knows me would have thought were highly unlikely: at a packed club dancing to a trance techno DJ (I really don’t know the difference between ‘trance’ and ‘techno’, let’s be honest) and at Mumbai’s Fashion Week.

Both were cases of just saying yes: our broker, with whom we’ve kept in touch, mentioned to me that one of her favorite DJs was going to be in town Saturday night. She said it was going to be a really fun night and we should come. So I said yes. Why not? Separately, I was at a drinks event and I met a guy who runs a non-profit that tries to bring the arts into impoverished schools. His organization was partnering with one of the designers at Fashion Week and he had extra tickets – so he invited me to go. Who knew what on earth this event would be? But I said yes.

So last night I found myself in a room full of elegant high-heeled Mumbaikers sipping their overpriced drinks waiting in breathless anticipation for ‘Dash Berlin’, a Dutch DJ who everyone kept reminding me was “rated as the 14th best DJ in the world.” I kept wondering what a DJ would have to do to make it to 13.

When he came out the crowd went absolutely wild. And this guy was working for it- he jumped around, smiled widely while waving his hands in the air, played ‘air drums’, and intermittently held up an iPad with scrolling words saying things such as “Hello Mumbai” or “Make Some Noise”. One time he just held it up with hearts going by. Each time the crowd roared. (See video below – it’s not something I shot, but it gives you the idea!)


I didn’t know whether to enjoy it or laugh at it. My boring old self had the instant reaction of: why is everyone in this room staring at a guy fiddling with a Mac and some turntables? He’s not playing anything. The guy must be on some kind of drug to have that much energy and some members of the crowd were also channeling the same energy source that allowed them to dance with complete abandon.

Models strutting their stuff at Lakme Fashion Week

I had a similar reaction to the Fashion Week show. Was it really fun? Or taking itself too seriously for my taste?

We walked in and it was certainly larger than I had expected. Mumbai Fashion Week (also known as Lakme Fashion Week) had been advertised around town but I didn’t know how big it was. When we walked in it certainly looked like a fashion show (or at least the photos of fashion shows I had seen). It looked professional and I was standing in line to get in behind Fern Mallis, the head of New York Fashion Week, so I supposed this must have some credibility.

But it was just so funny to me – everyone scrambling and haggling to get the best seat they could (a very Indian spin on the concept of a Fashion Week). A hundred photographers stood at the end waiting. But when the lights went down and the music came on, models strutted out it was certainly a bit thrilling – who doesn’t enjoying getting a glimpse of the fashionable life that seems to exist outside of my world? It looked like a New York fashion show but with slightly less impressive models and some very fancy saris mixed into the more traditional fashion. And there I sat, in my Old Navy skinny jeans and H&M top thinking I was an imposter.

In both the club and the fashion show I had the reaction of: this is fun, but is it me?

But that’s a stupid question here – the whole point of coming to Mumbai was to test those boundaries. It’s to walk through the streets of Dharavi one day and then watch an absurd fashion show the next. It’s to breathe in all the wonders and incongruities Mumbai has to offer.

So at the fashion show I just took it all in. And at the club I just let myself dance. I cheered for Dash Berlin, I closed my eyes and let the strobe lighting and bass music carry me for just a little bit. I’m ok with getting swept up in Mumbai. I’m going to keep saying yes.

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“Excuse me sir… sir… SIR!”

The car swerved out of the way, just narrowly missing a group of cows lying casually in the middle of the highway. The driver looked back at me in his rearview mirror as though I was completely insane for being perturbed at his proximity to the animals. This was just everyday life here – cows lie with abandon and drivers go around them at the last moment possible. This was Udaipur, Rajasthan.

Daniel had suggested we do something to get out of Bombay and relax while it was still the low season throughout India. He had found a great monsoon deal at the Lake Palace, which is one of the most famous and unique hotels in India- he had rightfully convinced me that despite still having a bit of jetlag, it would be worth the trip.

India for me had only been Maharastra (the state where Mumbai is located). It was Mumbai and a bit of its environs. I was curious to see my new adopted country in a different light (For a sense of the streets of Udaipur, I’ve attached this video of my ride in a rickshaw, below).


And Rajasthan brings to light the classic India that many imagine. The cow element was something I had come to believe was a myth – while Mumbai has cows tethered to the side of the road I had certainly never experienced the famed cows wandering through the streets. Here it is inescapable – on the side of the road, in the road, crossing paths with trucks and motorbikes, cows just stare at the people who regard them with such awe and piety.

Lake Palace entrance (from a boat)

But beyond that curious Indian stereotype, Udaipur itself is a dream. It is said to be one of the most romantic cities in the world and it’s easy to see why. It’s as though Venice and India from the Raj times collided to create a city on water surrounded by hills and beautiful architecture.

And the Lake Palace is the epicenter – built in the early 18th century for Rajasthan’s King (the Maharana), it is only accessible by boat and once inside it is breathtakingly beautiful. Ceilings and columns with glass mosaics lead down to marble floors. A lily pond and views of the lake come at you from every direction. It is a true testament to the beauty of Indian design and skill.

We spent today wandering the city and its sights. The most notable is the Maharana’s other home – The City Palace. In present times the Royal Family rents out the Lake Palace to the Taj Hotel Chain and they have turned the majority of their City Palace into a museum. They still live in one (very, very large) section of the palace. They have also turned another lake structure, Jagmandir, into a place for dinners and weddings. It must be good to be Rajasthani royalty.

Jagmandir lit up at night

In the City Palace

The City Palace is also incredible – Indian marble columns are intricately carved and walls are inlaid with Venetian glass mosaics or Chinese tiles, all from the 18th century. The Palace is so large it was completed over 400 years, beginning in the 16th century and only completed in the 20th century. Elephant fights used to take place in the courtyards, and this practice was only discontinued in the 1950’s.

Lake Palace courtyard

Being in Udaipur is like getting to experience another world in another time. Unlike Mumbai, which is struggling to keep pace and prove its modernity, Udaipur seems to be happily frozen in its glory days (and profiting handsomely from them). It is romantic and tranquil and calming, as though each moment we’ve sat on the boat coming out to our hotel on a lake is something you can capture in time.

This feeling, of course, is a far cry from the moment of terror where we almost hit the cow. It’s almost incongruous. But maybe it all fits – while we were rushing to enter the city perhaps the cow was laying there thinking, “slow down, relax, take in the sights. No one will hit you. Just enjoy Udaipur.”
And we will take that advice – after all, we’re not leaving ‘till Tuesday!

Daniel and Ali with the Lake Palace behind

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