A traveler’s guide to India
There are several things that travel guides will tell you about India. They will refer to it as the acid test for travellers; they’ll tell you that you’ll either love it or hate it, but it will change your perspective on life; they will tell you that you won’t be able to wait to leave, and then once you’ve left, you can’t wait to come back. They will talk about all the colours, the culture and the food. There are elements of truth in all of these. India is one of those destinations that stick true to the advertising slogans of their tourism departments. It truly is an incredible destination – even if it is somewhat overwhelming.
Before I go on much further, I should make my readers aware that I grew up in India. My parents are Indian, and I speak the local language fluently. It is also the country of my birth. However, I spent my formative years in the United Kingdom, and have spent the last dozen years of my life in the United States of America and Australia. It’s safe to say that I am very westernised.
When I left the shores of my country of birth in 2000 to pursue the American dream in the United States, I had sworn that I would never return to India unless it was a family matter that required my attention. I have since broken that resolve three times. The nation offers a certain calling for me, and over time, I have developed a greater degree of appreciation for what it offers to a tourist, and to a photographer. Having done the hard yards of getting a career and being financially independent for an extended period of time, I decided to go back to my country of birth in January 2011. A visit to my parents was on the agenda; however, I had also decided to be a tourist rather than a host. The plan was to meet my parents in my home town of Guwahati, and then spend some time in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), New Delhi, and Agra, before embarking on a tour of Rajasthan. I intended to visit Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer.
The bulk of my memories of India were from 2000 (I had visited twice in the interim, but had only spent a few days each time on what turned out to be the customary visit to each of my 600 relatives). In the process, I made a few discoveries – some pleasant and some not quite so. I attribute it to India’s way of bringing you back to reality.
One of the myths that I got to hear about tourism in India were that hotels are cheap. The reality is that you get what you pay for. Now, the Australian and the US dollars were both strong against the Indian Rupee when I had visited. The exchange rate was something of the order of 45 rupees to 1 dollar. One could book themselves into a three star hotel run by local businesses for about $40 per night. Here is where the penny dropped on the myth.
The concept of a three star hotel in India is quite different from what they are in the west. They are not dirty. They’re just smaller.
The typical three star hotel will have a bellhop who will carry your bags for a tip of 10 rupees (about 20 cents), and will sport king size beds and bathrooms with hot and cold running water. The reality is that the rooms are small. When you get an adult couple into a room with a full load of luggage, you’re very cosy. It’s important to understand that when booking a room that is recommended for two, in no event should one attempt to host another individual in a spare bed. (This is, of course, assuming that the individuals in question are above the age of 12). Hotel rooms in such establishments are typically around 12 to 15 square meters (about 130 to 160 square feet). They are likely to house a flat screen TV which is likely to be around the 26 inch size, with over 150 channels of cable TV (most of which are in Indian languages, but you can still watch CNN and the BBC). Internet is often offered as part of the package, though local and long distance phone calls are not.
The bathrooms are clean, but the decorum may leave something to be desired. India is renowned for its colours, and those colours flow all the way into the decorum. Do not be surprised if the shower curtains clash with the colour of the floor.
Towels are likely to be rough. This is not a reflection of poor quality material, but is a result of the local water in which clothes are washed. The water sources in the New Delhi area are typically iron rich hard water sources that result in very crispy and white towels that have a tinge of blue in their colour (this is a result of the use of “neel” – a cleaning agent that (if used in the correct doses and exposes to sunlight) whitens white clothes and disinfects them.
India is a nation of over a billion people. If you’re ever wondering how so many people get along in relative peace, it’s because there is an attitude of compromise and, sometimes, a lack of attention to detail. This is something that I have found extends to the hospitality industry in the locally run three star hotels. While their advertise may say one thing, you are very likely to find that what you get is not quite what you thought you had paid for. You can always get it set right, but there is a certain amount of haggling that you will need to be prepared for, along with a resolve to not back down from your position.
If you’re looking for the western standards while travelling in India, consider checking into hotel chains run by Taj, Oberoi, Hilton, Radisson, or the Intercontinental group. I’ll use the Hilton for example (I stayed at the Hilton in Janakpuri). The executive room that I had checked into ran at around $230 per night, but offered a room that is 47 square metres (505 square feet), and was outfitted with a 40 inch TV screen, a shower and a bath tub, bathroom robes and slippers for all the guests, safe, mini-bar, and all the modern conveniences that you would expect from a similar class of hotel in the west. The room was tastefully decorated – simple and elegant. I was travelling with family. We accommodated our party of three with an extra bed, and still felt like we had plenty of space.
The towels were white and fluffy. The toiletries were from Crabtree and Evelyn. The executive lounge was available to us 24 hours a day with complimentary drinks and snacks (and good quality ones at that). Breakfast is included in the fare, and a more than hearty one at that with plenty of choice.
The hotel staff is courteous and professional. They understood my needs as a guest well, and more often than not, a request that I had put in at the time of booking had already been catered to even before I had a chance to ask for it.
At the end of the day, it boils down to your budget. If I had to do it again, I would continue to stay at the Hilton, just because I do not have to haggle for all the little things I need, and it’s a much nicer experience at the end of which I found that my holiday was one where I relaxed rather than getting all wound up to haggle for what I had already paid for.
Transport in India is generally cheap. Planes are cheap, trains are cheaper, and buses are the cheapest. Once again, you get what you pay for. When travelling within India, I make it a point to only travel either of two airlines – Jet Airways, and Kingfisher Airlines. Both airlines are premium airlines and are slightly more expensive than their competitors or the government-run Air India.
Comfort while travelling is important to me. I found that both Kingfisher and Jet operate well, have clean aircraft, and cater to a clientèle that forms the upper crust of society. As snobbish as this may sound, this is quite important when travelling in India. You’ll find that travelling on some of the budget airlines may result in introducing you to some rather interesting characters. And while it may make for an interesting story for your mates back home, at a certain point, you have to ask yourself what you’re looking for in a holiday.
You can typically get a good fare on an Indian airline carrier if you book in advance. Plan to make reservations 90 days in advance to get the best fares.
Trains are the other major mode of travel in India. Indian Railways offers 1st Class, 2-tier AC, and 3-tier classes. When booking your travel, I recommend sticking to either 1st Class, of 2-tier AC. Both these classes have access to the carriages well-regulated (i.e., no ticket, no entry) and are generally clean and comfortable. Travel on 3-tier during the middle of summer can be a hot and steamy affair (thermally, and not otherwise), and with unregulated access to the carriages, you may find that your berth has been occupied by a friendly, but unauthorised stowaway. (And do not get into an argument with the aforementioned stowaway – it never ends well).
When travelling by road in India, you have the option of using a tour bus, and then using local transport. While they are cheap, depending on where you are going in India, not everyone understands English as well as you might need them to. My recommendation, however, is to book a tourist taxi. Negotiate with the operator (this is often organised by your hotel), where you can agree to a package deal of the vehicle, driver, petrol, parking, tolls and taxes, and driver’s accommodation all settled for a single price. Never pay up front, but drip feed the driver with amounts to meet his expenses if the operator insists. When you do this, you’ll find that getting around from one destination to another is a breeze, with no hassles of the local transport operators, or the issues of language.
India is a big name in IT. Phones and the Internet are easy to access. You can make local and long-distance calls from locally run businesses called PCOs (public call offices), which you’ll be able to find every 200 metres in urban areas, and every 500 metres in populated rural areas. You can also buy a prepaid SIM from Aircel at your point of entry. This will ensure that you are covered all across the nation.
Internet services are easily available at Internet Cafés all over India. Speeds can be a little slow. A note of caution – never access financial details from an Internet Café or off a computer that you do not own. After having plugged USB drives into several public computers in India, I’ve yet to find one that is not virus infected. There is also the risk that a publicly access machine might have a key-logger running to steal your passwords.
If you’re carrying a laptop, consider getting a prepaid USB modem and Internet Service from Tata Indicom. The service takes about 15 minutes to organise at any Tata Indicom retailer in India’s urban areas, and works well, even on the highways while driving. It works exceptionally fast in India’s urban areas.
The locals are generally really nice and friendly, and are typically obliging. They are always curious about foreigners and travellers. It’s a something about being one in a nation of over a billion people with over 10,000 years of documented history – Indians can tend to be very gregarious (in their own way) and this can be somewhat discomforting for a tourist who is not used to the way on how Indians react. Being a good host means a lot in India.
However, there is always someone out there trying to use this general outlook to their advantage to make a quick buck, and just like any other tourist spot in the world, as a foreign tourist, be prepared to deal with would be guides, touts, and souvenir merchants, looking to offload their wares on you and make some money.
I recommend that all tourists invest in a pair of dark sunglasses to not make eye contact. When approached by a hawker, politely say “No thank you!” and keep walking without pausing or turning your head. Occasionally, a hawker can be persistent. In such a case, as you walk, ask the hawker what his or her name is. When he (or she) tells you, address them by name as you keep walking, and tell them that they are bothering you and that you would like them to leave you alone. They will typically back off.
Be mindful of beggars and little children – particularly the ones who come and give you a hug around your waist out of the blue or attempt to touch you. Chances are that if their hands are not out, they are in your pocket attempting to lift your wallet.
In the past, my way of getting rid of beggars was to hand them some money. But I found that while rummaging for change in my pocket, I would end up getting accosted by even more beggars. I have since changed my strategy to deal with this. I usually carry a few snacks and fruit in my day pack. Whenever I came across a beggar, rather than hand out money, I just gave them some food – a fruit, a small packet of some biscuits or a small bottle of water or juice – and I’ve never been bothered any further.
These are just a few things that have helped me get through my last trip in India, and I’m sure that there will be several other individuals who will have other experiences to share about visiting this very diverse and very intense land.
I hope this is some good information for those of you who are planning a trip there in the not too distant future.