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Trip Report Travel in India: Some Observations and Impressions

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Virtually every trip report on India I’ve read online is some variation or another of itineraries with some details thrown in to provide “local color." Where my husband and I went in India, how and why, may not be of much interest though to folks—so I am sharing instead some of the observations and impressions I made note of in my e-journal during our recent, nearly month-long trip in India that took us from Delhi to Aurangabad, Varanasi, and Khajuraho, then on to Bandhavgarh and Kanha National Parks and surrounding areas, and finally to Agra, Jaipur, and Udaipur. We stayed in moderately priced hotels (both modern and heritage hotels) and lodges, and engaged the services of a guide and driver for many—but not all—of our days in India. No doubt at least some of my observations and impressions are shaped by the fact that we were tourists—but I hope that these may be useful to readers who are considering a trip to this extraordinary country sometime in the near future.

Sensory Experience

So many accounts in print and online describe the experience of traveling in India as intense or overwhelming, but I can't say that was my experience. Rather, I seemed to simultaneously experience a heightening of the senses of sight, sound, and taste, and a diminishing of the senses of smell, and touch. I very rarely felt that my personal space was invaded, and things that should have smelled offensive (cow dung and burning corpses in Varanasi, omnipresent garbage, including a considerable amount of organic waste, everywhere). The occasional pleasant smells of incense, flowers, or the verdant forest of Kanha invited long, deep breaths…everything else seemed for me to fade into the background.

Bathrooms in India (a woman’s eye view)

I'd been forewarned by a friend who returned from a six-week volunteer experience in rural Kerala not to expect conventional toilets or toilet paper. I cannot stress strongly enough how useful the six purse-sized of tissues I packed with me turned out to be. In many places, the only toilets available were simply a pair of slightly elevated steps with a hole between them. Many of the conventional toilets I happened across had absent or malfunctioning flush mechanisms. In many bathroom stalls, wet (though not soiled) toilet tissue was supposed to be deposited in a bucket. Often, though, there was no bucket in sight. I confess that my solution may have been unusual but avoided damaging anyone’s plumbing unless I was using more modern facilities in a hotel, or some airport bathrooms. I kept a lightweight ziplock bag in my purse and carried out my damp tissue until I could find an appropriate receptacle.

Excellent advice that I received, and duly pass along, is to always have some small (e.g. 10 rupee) notes to tip bathroom attendants. Some attendants clearly earn that tip by rationing out toilet paper from a roll in their possession (since there's usually none in the stalls). Super service may include being handed a paper towel to dry your hands. Even if the attendant simply stood by at or outside the bathroom door, I generally handed her (or him) a 10 rupee note, on the theory that someone's got to wipe a surface and empty the paper bucket now and then, which is surely worth 16 cents…and the attendant for sure needs that money more than me.

I also learned to dress strategically on long road trips, since if was easier to lift my skirts to pee than to squat (thank you body pump classes), push back my underwear and pants, and pee in a hole. I confess that a few times, when I was in pants, I left the stall with a light sprinkle visible on the fabric—usually around the ankle.

Attire (in general)

Aside from dressing for comfort and convenience as described above, I found that I needn't have been quite as concerned as I was about dressing appropriately so as not to attract stares or undue attention. As a matter of full disclosure, I am in my sixties, so it's unlikely that anyone would much care to gawk at my attire anyway. Personally, I think there's a fine line between purchasing and wearing a modest salwar kameez in order to fit in, and looking like one has gotten ready for a fancy dress of costume party. Sometimes, in some settings, Westerners fit in best by looking like themselves. Now I'd certainly stick to shirts and blouses with sleeves (I preferred ¾ length for their versatility in all weather conditions) and modest necklines (no cleavage, please). Any length of pants below the mid-calf seemed fine, but I made sure that these were not form-fitting. I got a great deal of use out of two mid-calf length skirts I'd packed for the trip. I packed light since we had a number of domestic flights on airlines with strict weight allowances, and on principle I didn't feel like paying an overage fee (though this may not bother some people). As many travelers have indicated in online posts, hotel laundry service is usually very reasonable (and sometimes downright cheap), so we invariably had something clean to wear. I always travel with a small (travel-size) container of Ivory or some other delicate soap,and we typically wash and dry our underthings and lightweight shirts when we’ll be in a given destination long enough to be confident that clothing will dry.

I selected footwear for comfort and light weight, taking one pair of Merrells that were suitable for everyday and provided support over long hours, and a pair of J-29 Mary Janes that dressed up an outfit if need be. I also took along sandals, but really could have done without them. Thanks to a long morning playing colors on Holi, my Merrell Mimosa Fizz MJs are now multicolored instead of a neutral blue-grey (called “wild dove” by the manufacturer), but they held up wonderfully and I’d recommend them wholeheartedly as travel shoes.

Interactions with locals (not part of the tourist industry)

First, let me say that pretty consistently, our interactions with Indians were extraordinarily positive--we found everyone friendly, gracious, helpful, curious without being intrusive, and accommodating. I realize that local guides, drivers, serving staff in restaurants, naturalists and guides on game drives, and shopkeepers may practice these traits because they’re good for business. However, ordinary people we encountered on the street as passers-by or in casual interactions (pilgrims at sacred sites, in the streets of Varanasi, at work in small villages) meted out smiles aplenty. School children everywhere we traveled, and at every age, sought to try out their English and wave. And on Holi, when we'd been warned about the possible danger (of at least discomfort) of being slathered with color or doused by water guns and water balloons, people in the narrow streets of Udaipur near the Jagdish Temple simply reached out with one or both hands and gently tapped our faces with color while wishing us a “Happy Holi.” When I saw anyone approaching with a mega-water gun, fingers on the trigger, a simple shake of my head sent them off in the direction of the next celebrant.

Positive interaction does require observing camera etiquette, however. It was hugely tempting to ignore the recommended policy of confirming the acceptability of taking someone's photograph before just pointing and shooting. I observed that when this policy was ignored by other travelers, women especially often scowled before fully hiding their faces beneath a shawl or part of their sari. Yes, that mother carrying a babe in arms while balancing what looked like a cord of wood on her head might make a completion-worthy shot, but it can be quite disrespectful, objectifying other human beings as it does.

Interaction with vendors and hawkers

I honestly wondered what all the hype in the travel literature was all about until we reached Rajastan and visited Agra, Jaipur, and Udaipur (with Jaipur being the worst, at least for us). Everyone was selling something, from mildly appealing nick knacks like the marionettes we purchased for our grandchildren to absolute schlock (for those not familiar with Yiddish, pure garbage, something of inferior quality). Walking away without conversation is no deterrent. Once a vender has his (pronoun intentional, as most were men) eyes on you, he won't give up until your paths are separated by a half dozen motorcycles and/or auto rickshaws. During this time, the original price will go down, often precipitously, while the quantity discount goes up (one trinket for one hundred rupees, two for eight, three for fifty, a half dozen for twenty). Unless you really have a use for refrigerator magnets by the pound, keep walking, and watch as you go so you don't get run over by an auto rickshaw or motorcycle in your effort to flee.

One warning in particular about bargain books—Yes, you may have loved the Ellora and Ajanta Caves so much that you'd actually like to have a glossy coffee table book of even a small plot-rich pocketbook-sized volume as a souvenir. Be cautioned however that if the price seems unbelievably low, the book is probably a pirated edition. If may be missing pages, included pages in languages other than the one you wanted tucked away inside, or may include duplicates of some pages while it’s missing others. Just wait until you get home, look up books on the sights you loved on Amazon.com, and buy a book!

Bathing (both the indoor and outdoor variety)

Several of the hotels and lodges where we stayed had a pool, ranging from the size of a plunge pool to nearly Olympic proportions. However, I rarely saw anyone—Indian or otherwise—actually in the water, although the temperature was sufficiently warm during our travels to permit a dip in comfort. Bearing in mind cautions I’d read about modest attire, I wore a one-piece suit in the pool and a short sleeved, mid-calf cover-up when lounging poolside. The end of our trip found us at a beautiful haveli in Jaipur, where I remained on the sidelines not because of concerns about the locals, but because the rest of the guests, most of whom appeared to be French, were in bikinis and scant bathing trunks. Darned if I was going into the water in front of them!

Tipping

Service was excellent pretty consistently throughout our travels, and we tipped generously (though not ostentatiously) for all services rendered—to guides, naturalists, drivers, bellmen, waitstaff, and others. In nearly all instances, we felt no pressure to do so, which made tipping feel comfortable—it was our gesture of genuine appreciation for each person’s expertise and attention to our needs and interests, and the response were received was nearly always appropriately restrained and professional—a nod, a word of thanks in turn. Only in Agra did we feel like everyone regarded us as walking billfolds, with some hotel staff taking any opportunity to remind us who they were and what they did or would do for us during our stay. And at one lodge in a national park, one of the managers directed us (yes, directed, not merely suggested) to tip the park guides an amount that we found out later was well above what was expected or appropriate, in order that the lodge maintain good relations with the lodge. Only after a few safaris with indifferent guides did we wise up. Tipping is one thing, coercion another.

Indian drivers

All hail to Indian drivers—drivers of all manner of vehicles, from trucks, buses and cars to motorcycles and auto-rickshaws. According to a popular guidebook on India, roads there are the most dangerous in the world, with the highest number of road fatalities per hour anywhere. I’m here to tell you though that in nearly one month of travel on roads both urban and rural, we saw evidence of one accident (the result of a driver not passing a slower moving vehicle in his lane in time to avoid an oncoming vehicle). What we did see, time and time again, was breathtaking skill on the part of our drivers (whether chauffeurs vetted by the company that helped arrange our trip or the plucky tuk tuk drivers we hired on the spot to navigate impossibly crowded city streets). All wove through traffic without hesitation, often bypassing other vehicles, passersby, and animals with what seemed like less than an inch to spare—but nothing and no one was ever so much as grazed! Every driver seemed to have an uncanny sixth sense regarding what every other vehicle around him was going to do, and executed breathtaking maneuvers with the single-minded goal of getting us where we wanted to go, quickly and safely. That sixth sense even applied to bovine road warriors. How our drivers managed to skirt around and through cows and bulls of astounding girth and unpredictable meanderings, I’ll never know. I am grateful that they did, however, and full of admiration for drivers I now consider some of the best in the world (and I learned to drive in New York City!).

I’d love to hear from fellow travelers, to share and compare observations and experiences.

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