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Karen and Blip's final thoughts, tips, favorites - India redux

Karen and Blip's final thoughts, tips, favorites - India redux

Jan 10th, 2011, 04:29 PM
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Karen and Blip's final thoughts, tips, favorites - India redux

Many of you know I recently returned from 11 days in India with an Intrepid tour (accompanied by a small stuffed sheep named Blip). For those who don't want to bother with the all the detail in my trip report, here's the wrap-up and bottom line.

ITINERARY:

Delhi, 1 night
Jaipur - 2 nights
Agra - 1 night
Orchha - 1 night
Khajuraho - 1 night
Varanasi - 2 nights
Delhi - 2 nights (including 1 on my own after the tour ended)


FAVORITE ACTIVITIES / EXPERIENCES:

1. Sunrise boat ride on the Ganges - a home run. It gave me that "pinch-me-I'm-here" feeling. "Really?" I kept wanting to say. "Really, this happens here every day? These people do laundry, take baths, cremate bodies, pray, do yoga, and get in that filthy water WITH THEIR CLOTHES ON while everyone watches? For how many hundreds of years? REALLY?"

2. Meeting the renowned Hindu swami, Pujya Swamiji - as my daughter would say, "omigosh." I couldn't believe my luck when the bearded holy man with the unruly hair and orange robe took the empty window seat next to one of my tour-mates and ME on the flight from Varanasi to Delhi. I STILL can't believe my luck. The rich conversation with the renowned swami was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and will always be a fond memory of this amazing trip. Here's some background on him (on the website of the NGO he founded and chairs) http://www.ihrf.com/pujyaSwamiji.html

3. Bollywood movie night - yes, it makes my list. What a fun experience - a total hoot. The movie was beautiful; I'd never seen anything quite like it. And being there in a huge and gorgeous theater packed full of Indian locals - the women in their exquisite saris - was so very cool. If you have the opportunity to go to a major Bollywood production in a stylish theater, don't miss out.

4. My solo morning walk into Orchha. I loved seeing the sleepy village wake up and start its day - with kids heading off to school, men getting their cows out for the day, others working the fields. It was wonderful, with a totally different vibe than the cities.

5. City walks in Old Delhi and Jaipur. My welcome-to-India afternoon was quite a buzz. As others before me have said, Old Delhi is colorful, noisy, crowded, and smelly - all at once and more intensely than anyone who hasn't been there can imagine. I felt a little like Linda Blair in The Exorcist - with my head spinning 'round and 'round. Visiting the spice market and the Sikh temple, with rides on the metro and a local bus, was fascinating and frenetic. The morning walk in Jaipur, seeing the vegetable market, was similar sensory overload. And, oh, the photo ops!

6. Interaction with local Indians, especially kids. I loved our in-home meals and our visit to a rural school, arranged by Intrepid. But just as much, I enjoyed the serendipitous exchanges with locals on the street or even at tourist sights. I loved having people ask to have their picture taken with me. I loved the two little girls who ran up to me wanting me to take their picture in the Jaipur vegetable market. I loved it when a boy, maybe 13, wanted his dad to take a photo of him and me at the mosque in Delhi. I loved it when an extended family at the Taj Mahal lined up their entire family and put me in the middle for their family picture. And I loved it when we interacted with the young men in a small village who surrounded us as one of our group members asked them questions about their age, school, and every day life.

7. Special times with my tour group buddies. Going with a group can have its drawbacks, but I was incredibly fortunate to end up with the most delightful group imaginable. We were five Australians, one New Zealander, one Canadian, and one American. We ranged in age from early 20s to 60, but we bonded. And our tour guide, Tej, was the best. He set an upbeat, open tone - with lots of laughter and sharing and hugs. I loved our dinners together, party night in Tej's room about halfway through the trip, and our final "friendship bracelet" ceremony on our last night together.

Favorite tourist attractions:

1. Taj Mahal - Wow! It looks just like it looks, a five-star attraction worth every point of every star. Don't expect lavish interiors, though. There aren't any. What you see on the outside is what you get. We were there for much of the afternoon through sunset. It was worth the stay to see the changing light on the marble walls. We didn't have time to see it at sunrise the next morning, so I can't comment on that, but I was satisfied after our one visit.

2. Amber Fort, Jaipur - Maybe because it was "my first" Indian fort/palace and the adrenalin was still flowing, but I LOVED this place. As I said in my report, the scalloped arches and jeweled walls were like something out the Arabian nights (yes, I know this is India, but still). It was fantastic and brought out the fantasy-lover in me, as I imagined magic carpets swooping down from the ramparts.

3. Red Fort, Agra - loved the viewpoint where you could see the Taj off in the distance. Loved the stories that went along with the tour. (Great local guide there - I've got his name and contact info if anyone wants it.)

4. Temples of Khajuraho - erotic statues, what can I say? The architectural style reminded me a bit of Angkor, although the Khajuraho temples were built a little earlier. Some of those statues were quite explicit!

5. Palace/fort at Orchha - the painted walls/ceilings inside some of the rooms reminded me of the Valley of the Kings in Egypt (although not of the same era!). i loved everything about Orchha.

Favorite foods:

Butter chicken
Any aubergine dish
Dahl
Garlic naan

Also banana lassi and masala chai

I was a little nervous about the food, because I wasn't a fan of Indian food before I left. I needn't have worried - it was good almost everywhere we ate. Breakfast was included at all of our hotels, and breakfast was the only time on the trip I ate Western food (eggs/cereal/fruit). I miss my Indian masala chai every morning!


TIPS / LESSONS LEARNED (interestingly, this is a similar list to the one I wrote after my first trip to Asia several years ago):

1. Always carry toilet paper - most public places won't have it, unless there's an attendant (expecting a tip).

2. Squat toilets aren't so bad once you get used to the idea - and learn how to use them. I think the trick (if I may be graphic) is to squat all the way down; don't try to hold yourself in a seated position. Also, because the floor is often wet, hold up your pants legs. As long as the toilets are reasonably clean, I got to where I didn't mind them a bit. A young local woman was surprised when, given the choice of two stalls, one Western and one Indian-style toilet, I said "it doesn't matter, after you." She got wide-eyed and said, "You don't mind an Indian toilet?" I saw both surprise and, I think, respect in her eyes.... which leads to number 3:

3. Don't turn up your nose at a custom just because it's different from your own. Different isn't necessarily worse. It's easy to fall into that trap when you encounter things you're not accustomed to, but being curious and going with the flow makes for a much more interesting trip - and your acceptance comes back tenfold. Our guide told me I was the nicest American he'd ever met. He was probably just being nice himself (I'm certainly not an unusually nice person), but I tried hard to be accepting/enthusiastic and celebrate the diversity of customs. It's more fun that way. Viva la difference!

4. Hoard your small bills. Ask for change in 10s and 20s at every opportunity. You need them at toilet stops (to tip the attendant) and for all kinds of tips.

5. Guard your health. Always carry hand sanitizer. It's not always easy to find places to wash your hands, and cleanliness is important for health reasons. Don't drink the tap water; don't even brush your teeth in it. The only person in our group who got Delhi belly had been brushing his teeth with the tap water. As for food, if not cooked, boiled, or peeled, avoid it.

6. Ask first if you want to take someone's picture (unless they're in the distance or part of a large group/crowd). I'd usually just hold up my camera and point. Most people would nod yes. Some would say no. Others (kids, mostly) would ask me to take their picture. And still others would ask if they could take a picture of me. Or if I'd be in their family picture or pose with their child. I gladly obliged (and handed my own camera to one of my tour mates so they could snap a shot at the same time). I don't ask if I'm using a zoom lens and am quite a ways off. The guideline I try to observe, which works for me, is to extend the same courtesy I'd extend to people in my hometown.

7. Talk to people. They're every bit as interested in and curious about you as you are them. If you're female, you can easily interact with the women, who may at first appear shy and reticent. I found if you look them in the eye, smile and say "namaste" - or if you express interest in their child/children, they're quick to respond in a positive way. The men, well, if you're female, they respond more than you may want.

8. Prepare yourself for poverty. There's lots. More than I've seen anywhere else. And the street beggars, especially women with babies, are more aggressive than anywhere I've been. I gave a piece of chocolate to a kid once and was so sorry I had - soon we had 10 kids chasing us asking for chocolate.

9. Avoid the dogs and monkeys. They won't come after you, but don't go up to them. Some of them are rabies carriers. It's not worth the risk.

10. Take sunscreen and Deet insect repellent - and use them.

11. Pack light and take an extra bag to bring home the goodies you buy! If you go by train, as we did, it's so much easier if you have small luggage. I took one carry-on size rolling bag and a small daypack. I managed fine. As I accumulated some stuff during the trip, I pulled out the extra duffel bag I'd brought and carried it, too.

12. Blip's contribution: don't let anyone "pull the wool over your eyes" when you're bargaining in the markets. Just because someone says it's silk, doesn't mean it is. Most likely, it's not. Bargain hard, but keep it friendly. Feel free to accept tea if offered; it doesn't obligate you to buy anything (although it's nice if you do).

13. If you have a snake phobia like I do, try not to worry. Ask travel companions to keep an eye out for snake charmers so as to avoid an unexpected encounter. We only saw them once, in Jaipur, and my tour buddies steered me away before I even saw them.

14. Touts are indefatigable, and kids are the often the worst. They will follow you relentlessly trying to get you to buy flowers or visit their shop or whatever. Ignore them as best you can and keep going. If you engage, you'll encourage them. I found, believe it or not, that "maybe later" (preferably with an Indian head wiggle) works better than "no thanks" to get rid of them. Tej said Indians don't like "no" - it's almost rude, whereas "maybe later" leaves it open-ended and, therefore, is not offensive.

15. If you go with a tour group, remember that it's still YOUR vacation. If you want to break away from the group, feel free to do so. Use the guide to help YOU get what YOU want out of the trip. (I was a little timid on this first India trip about venturing off on my own, especially in cities, but wish I had done so just a little more.)

16. Lastly, savor the sights, sounds, smells, and craziness that are India. Expect the unexpected. In fact, embrace the unexpected and and just keep chanting: there's no place like India, there's no place like India, there's no place like India!

What a privilege it was to visit. I'm sad to be at the end of my trip report because now it's truly over. But I've got my pictures and my memories... and my plans/dreams for a return visit!

Thanks to all who offered support/advice before I left and to those who relived the trip with me through the full report.

If anyone who didn't see my report is interested in my pictures, they're at:

http://kbutler1122.zenfolio.com/f278879105

Hope this helps anyone planning a similar trip. Regarding traveling with a tour group vs independently, I've enjoyed both. For me going totally alone just wouldn't be fun. I want some regular companionship, and for this trip, I had no travel companion, so a tour group worked well. I thought Intrepid did a great job and would definitely use them again. I liked their small group size, their fabulous guide, and their philosophy of sustainable travel (local hotels, local transportation, cultural and environmental sensitivity, etc.).

If anyone has questions, please let me know.

Karen
althom1122 is offline  
Jan 10th, 2011, 05:41 PM
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Excellent tips Karen. Thanks for taking the time to post them. They're applicable to many, many parts of the world, not just India.
Femi is offline  
Jan 10th, 2011, 06:27 PM
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Great ideas, great summary! Much appreciated, as they took lots of time and thought obviously!
I love your enthusiasm. I may be in your situation next yr in India,as DD may not be able to come, but I'd rather travel with someone for most of the trip. Check back on this forum for updates, and possible posting for part-time travel companiions!

Re squat toilets: Friend departing for first trip to India asked for last minute tips. One from my daughter was "Carry rubber bands"-- to keep the rolled up trouser legs off the wet floor or worse, out of the hole's edges. Brilliant idea!
CaliNurse is offline  
Jan 10th, 2011, 06:34 PM
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Bravo Karen! You did a splendid job reporting and also summarizing up your thoughts about India and the sights you visited. I loved it all.
dgunbug is offline  
Jan 10th, 2011, 06:43 PM
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Karen - is there any particular place you wish you had more or less time in? How long do you suggest in Delhi?
dgunbug is offline  
Jan 11th, 2011, 02:50 PM
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Thanks!

I'd have liked 2 full days in Delhi (after jet lag recovery, or maybe 3 to include a shopping day) and also 2 full days in Jaipur. That's about what we had in Varanasi (an afternoon, a full day, and a morning) - and it was about enough, but we couldn't go to the main ghat area because of the recent bombing, so I might like 3 days there under ordinary circumstances. Varanasi is just so cool. Also, our time in Orchha was short. Two nights with an afternoon arrival and a full day would have been much better.

I typically don't like one-night stays, but I think it's enough for Agra (see the Fort and the Taj and that's it - the town's not much). I also thought we had enough time in Khajuraho, although it, too, was only one night (a mid-day arrival though through about noon the next day).

Tours typically travel faster than I'd do if I were on my own because they have the logistics pretty stream-lined, so I might add a bit of cushion if I were doing it independently.

Hope this helps.
althom1122 is offline  
Jan 11th, 2011, 08:26 PM
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we had 4 nights in jaipur and loved it... and i'm going back there this trip again...

i think delhi is 2 full days just for basic sighseeing, so another day or two is a plus..
rhkkmk is offline  
Jan 12th, 2011, 04:45 AM
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I agree with Bob. Three full days in Jaipur wouldn't be too much (4 nights). Two full days would be absolute minimum.
althom1122 is offline  
Jan 12th, 2011, 05:50 AM
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"What a privilege it was to visit."

re: squat toilets -- they're even in Italy! Work on those quad muscles!
indianapearl is offline  
Jan 12th, 2011, 05:51 AM
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"What a privilege it was to visit." What I meant to say is that is a lovely comment about India.

I had several friends tell me before we left that they would ". . . never go to such a poor place." Too bad for them!
indianapearl is offline  
Jan 12th, 2011, 06:04 AM
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Loved your tips and I totally agree with them all! Will check out your photos later.
pattyroth is offline  
Jan 12th, 2011, 10:36 AM
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Karen, thanks for the summary. Enjoyed your full TR too.
julia1 is offline  
Jan 12th, 2011, 06:06 PM
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Thanks for the comments! It truly was a privilege to have visited India - it's such a special place. I agree, indianpearl, too bad for your friends who would never go to such a poor place. They're missing out!

Cali - will be watching for your future trip plans!

And dgunbug - thanks again.

This has been really fun (writing about and reliving the trip)!
althom1122 is offline  
Jan 12th, 2011, 09:18 PM
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Good tips.
It's been a pleasure and a privilege to follow your TR. Thanks for sharing.

I found squat toilets in Eastern Europe and Turkey as well.

River ganges has become polluted like everywhere else...mostly organic pollution, I think. (as compared to chemical pollution). In the old days, it was known as the "holy" ganges because of the purity of river water....the ganges goes over rock and minerals which give a purifying effect....ordinary bacteria that are found in most rivers in the world don't exist in the Ganges.
magical is offline  
Jan 26th, 2011, 05:19 AM
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Hi,
Leaving for India Feb. 7 - taking my 21 year old daughter - your information has been incredible and I absolutely can't wait!!
I think I saw that you are going to Turkey in the fall - are you going with a tour?? I was there a year and a half ago for a quick trip and would love to go back and see more but don't really want to do it alone. A tour would be great.
Thanks, again, and hope to hear from you about Turkey!
Michelle
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Jan 26th, 2011, 06:49 AM
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Hi, Michelle (lipgirl - great screen name!). Yes, I'll probably go with a tour because my sister's going along and she much prefers tours. They definitely work better for the two of us (largely because they give us a break from each other - haha). We'll probably go with Gap or Intrepid in September. I'll keep everyone posted (on the Europe board) as it gets closer and our plans are firmed up because I'll likely have questions. Feel free to email me if you want to stay in touch - [email protected].

Hope you have a blast with your daughter in India. I was so disappointed mine (29) couldn't go with me this time. We love to travel together but it just didn't work out. I'm sure you/your daughter will really enjoy it. Are you going alone or with a group? And where to?
althom1122 is offline  
Jan 26th, 2011, 06:50 AM
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Never mind - I just found your post with questions about your upcoming trip!
althom1122 is offline  
Jan 26th, 2011, 08:20 AM
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We spent 3 weeks in Turkey several years ago and rented a car. The coast between Antalya and Istanbul is magnificent. One of the hidden gems that we found (which we didn't see on other tour sights) is Side which is close to Antalya. If you have any questions, feel free to email me. [email protected]
dgunbug is offline  
Jan 26th, 2011, 01:08 PM
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Michelle, you'll be in India for Valentine's Day!! Send Mother India our Fodors love!!
Have a fantastic and fascinating trip!!!!! I know from personal experience with Mrs.Faith, Mr. Pandian their company's drivers and local offices, that you are in good and safe hands.

(If you have any questions your driver can't answer--rare, but possible--just call the number on the card your driver gives you --a real person answers 24 hours a day! We had one minor question, called late at night, and Mr. Pandian answered from home.)
CaliNurse is offline  
Jan 26th, 2011, 02:36 PM
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I will bring your love to Mother India!! Gladly!!!

Thank you, everyone, for all of your help and feedback. It has been invaluable.

I will report back when I return!
lipgirl is offline  

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