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Trip Report Impressions from our three week trip to India February 2013

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First….a special moment. When we arrived in New Delhi airport, we were tired from the long flight, but pleased that getting through the arrival routine was nothing special. But then, we got to the last uniformed counter (probably customs) and we stopped. What were we supposed to do there? I looked at the man and he gave me the head waggle. Dogster!!! He often wrote about it. Yes, we were in India and it had been Dogster who set the stage. We smiled and went out into India.

Rather than a trip report reviewing the places, palaces, temples, forts, monuments visited, my report is of my impressions of our experience. The tourist sites we saw were the ones everyone sees on their first trip to Rajasthan. Many trip reports have discussed them. But going to India first means selecting a style of travel that works for you. Group tour or independent travel is the first major decision. For us, independent was a requirement. We are in our 70’s and wanted to sleep later in the mornings and not be required to follow a hourly schedule. We also did not want to visit the rug looming exhibition, the stone sculpture showroom, the pashima weaving demonstration. We are not shoppers. Group trips can be excellent and you will not miss any major tourist attraction and often get to know people who will become lifelong friends. Independent travel planned by a local operator can have the “completeness” of group travel but will allow the tourists to make changes on an hourly or daily basis.
We used Legends & Palaces which is owned by Mr. V.P. Singh and is based in New Delhi. He has been doing this long enough to know the nuances of trip planning for Western clients. We wanted/needed to go in the “Oberois Bubble”. My husband had no interest in exploring the culture of India…Italy is for him. But, he is a good guy and knew that this was important to me. India is so overwhelming that I knew we would need quiet, reliable, comfortable hotels. We also wanted to travel at a slower pace. Few one nighters and driving between cities kept to 4 or 5 hours a day. It may not be necessary to go to these very expensive hotels but they were very nice and there were no unpleasant surprises.

Mr. Singh made the hotel reservations based on my requests, arranged a car and driver, tour guides, suggested routings. All of his arrangements were fine. We liked some guides better than others, but that is often personality. All were competent and anxious for us to have a good experience. Our driver was excellent. He went beyond to make sure that we were comfortable and enjoying our experience. He was with us all but two days of our trip so he was very important. It is my impression that having Mr. Singh make our arrangements meant that it cost us less than if we make them ourselves. There are too many parts (car and driver, guides) which I could not price. But, it was much less than if we had taken a group tour with the well-known upper level international tour companies, or museum or college tour operators which used the same hotels. Independent tours from these operators were much, much more. I usually make our own travel arrangements but this trip was beyond me.

We used our points for the flights. We flew British Air from NYC to London, had a 3 hours layover, and then on to New Delhi. We flew Business going and Business and First (for the last leg) returning. I admire people who can go long haul coach, but that time is over for us. The return was almost 24 hours door to door.

We stayed at the Oberois Gurgaon near the New Delhi airport our last night. (Which I thought was too expensive for a one nighter getting there after 6pm. Wrong!) We had to get up at 4am for our 7am flight. Amazingly enough, the service and accommodation at the hotel were so good we actually slept very well that night. Maybe the 2 glasses of wine helped.

What else helped was that Mr. Singh arranged that we were met at every airport by someone who escorted us to our car. We were even met in hotel lobbies to escort us to our car (at the end of the hotel lobby) when we did not have a guide since we were being driven to an airport. We also had an Indian cellphone supplied by Mr. Singh so we could call our escorts. In short, no worries. Also, using a porter at the airports was really important. Indian airports and airlines have special quirks that can be confusing to a first timer. When Jet Airlines charged us for an extra bag which had been used before as a carryon, it was our porter who showed us where to go to pay the extra fee when we did not have enough rupees and the counter would not take a credit card.

India is amazing! It is the most colorful place we have been. Color everywhere! The women dress in the most beautiful saris. Many younger men dress Western style, but most women wear color! Older men wear unbelievable costumes. Everywhere you look, it is fascinating. The posture of the people is so erect. The faces are striking. I took endless photos of the people. Usually I take photos of things….in India, people.
For years I was afraid to go to India because the poverty would be too upsetting. But having been to Cambodia, Kenya, Tanzania, etc. the poverty here was not the most overwhelming factor. (We did not visit, though we saw shanty towns.) Less people were begging than we have seen elsewhere. Our driver and guide absolutely forbid us from giving except to a temple. The people live a different lifestyle than we do, but they do live. Water, sewerage, housing, garbage are big problems. But there is food everywhere. Fruit and vegetable markets everywhere. Food being cooked everywhere with lots of customers. We were often told about charity kitchens. Most amazing, in Delhi someone was celebrating something and provided free food from a very upscale hotel all day. Chefs in white uniforms and high hats were cooking on the street all day at the hotel next to the Imperial Hotel. At the end of the day, the discarded paper plates and plastic utensils were removed from the streets

Personal space. Not in India. Whether in a city or even in the countryside we did not have the “invisible” distance around us we have had elsewhere. The traffic is really as has been so often described. Cars, all kinds of wheeled vehicles, people, cows, dogs, goats, camels, a few elephants, cars, going in all directions at once with horns blaring. I was bumped more often in three weeks in India than in my whole life all together. Varanasi was much more crowded than NYC at anytime including New Year’s Eve. Plus, Indian people gather. Wherever you look, people, usually men more often than women, are gathered together, sitting on the ground, discussing. Who knows what they can be discussing so often, but there they are. Anything draws a group. When our driver had a hard time getting a receipt from the tolltaker, next thing we knew, there were 15 men gathered around offering opinions…and this was a tollbooth on a highway. When we stopped to take a picture of the woman with oxen circling to bring up water we went back across the road to get money for her. Immediately, ten other women appeared out of nowhere (flat fields there), who wanted money, candy, anything from us. They were friendly, smiling…we were the entertainment.

Even in the usual Rajasthan tourist circuit we followed, especially in Varainasi and the countryside, women wanted to hold my hand. I was “different” and they seemed to enjoy making the contact. “I shook the hand of the foreigner.” It was usually accompanied by a big smile and sense of pride. People were hospitable. When I had to wait in the street in Varanasi while my husband and the guide went to the toilet, I felt uncomfortable. So I stood near a group of women having tea at a stall. They immediately offered me tea, food, a seat, etc. Their English was very limited but far better than my Hindi. In Lodi Garden in Delhi I stopped to look at the group of beautiful people having a picnic. The senior man immediately invited me to join them and eat. They were from Afghanistan only moved to Delhi a few months before.

(End of first installment)

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