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There and back again: a conflicted (and reimagined) India Trip Report

There and back again: a conflicted (and reimagined) India Trip Report

Jan 20th, 2015, 12:00 PM
Join Date: Feb 2006
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thanks so much for starting this thread, fw. We are contemplating a trip to India, having had such a great experience in Sri Lanka but honestly you do make me wonder if we should just go back to Sri Lanka again and see some different parts of that wonderful island where apart from anything else, we virtually always had excellent spicy food. I can't imagine the frustration of being in India and being served tasteless rubbish.
annhig is offline  
Jan 20th, 2015, 01:33 PM
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I'm sorry if you think I've jumped to conclusions on the basis of an uncompleted report. I did not mean to do that.

And, I didn't say anything about insulating yourself by flying first class. I'd love to be able to do that. I just mentioned that if you only fly, you are in essence segregating yourself because the vast majority of Indian people can only afford to take a train or bus. There is definitely a growing middle class of Indians who can now afford to travel for vacations, but the majority are not flying. We've spent many hours talking to some fascinating Indians on trains. And last year when we hauled out our travel Scrabble set on a long journey, it wasn't long before we had some fellow travelers in our compartment playing too. They had never seen the game before and were fascinated.

And, as we all know, flying is a great time saver. We just decided to take a quick one-hour flight from Mumbai to Goa rather than a twelve hour train ride. So, I am not trying to set myself up as such a paragon that I won't fly. Discussions of carbon footprint are a completely different thing....

I think the thing where you got the wrong impression from me is that I would only stay in relatively basic lodging. Wrong! What I am trying to tell people is that there are many fabulous places where you will have a lovely and comfortable room to retreat to at the end of the day. This does not only happen if one stays at the international 5* chain properties. But, once again, we are all very different in what our comfort level is with different types of lodging. There are some people who will only book chain hotels because they know exactly what they are getting because of standardization. Others avoid chains whenever possible preferring smaller, family-run places.

I'm not trying to criticize you because you chose what works for you, but as evidence for others who are planning future travels and who want to try to have a truly authentic experience, here are some links to places we've stayed that more than meet the criteria of high standard accommodation where you'll be comfortable and well taken care of. However, note that these places are not the typical cookie cutter rooms that one can typically expect in a standardized hotel experience.







And, for nice places we've stayed in cities, take a look at these:





By the way, I too have used an agency on both of my previous trips, so I am not knocking agencies. But, unless you find the truly exceptional agency, most of them do have what are rather canned recommendations for journeys. I remember on our first trip as we were driving out from Jodphur our driver stopped at the typical tourist stops that all drivers stop at--the potter's, the local Bishnoi tribal settlement, the opium ceremony etc. These were all such canned experiences and did not al all compare to the authentic experiences we had when staying in local areas where we got to observe the real deal.

nycmary--Your travel style sounds like ours. I think the main problem with both of our styles is that if there is any train travel at all it must be booked way ahead of time unless you want to risk the last minute tourist scrum for those last minute availability tickets for foreign tourists. Another thing if you want to have more flexibility try to not travel in absolutely peak season where many desirable things get booked up way ahead of time by those with iron-clad itineraries. In fact, just today my husband and I were debating whether to have a dedicated car and driver for the portion of our upcoming trip where we will want a driver. There are pluses and minuses to having one driver for the entire trip versus having your lodging arrange a driver to take you to your next place. And, all lodging can do this for you.

filmwill--Didn't mean to steal your thread or offend you. I look forward to hearing what else you have to say in part II.
julies is offline  
Jan 20th, 2015, 03:05 PM
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Jumping in...for us India was so overwhelming we needed a really comfortable hotels to relax and regroup. The one night we stayed at a Heritage hotel it was a bit interesting but not comfortable even tho we had a 5 room suite. Hot water and a comfortable bed were not there nor adequate lightbulbs in the lamps. I still wonder what we did not see in the interior rooms. But I met a woman I had gone with to summer camp when I was 8 years old. No..I did not know her that summer.
Everyone has to "do" India in ways that work for them.
Elainee is offline  
Jan 20th, 2015, 03:05 PM
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I have to step in at this point and say that looking back now, our best experience in India was in Udaipur, where we booked at the last minute and had to stay in a $65/nt home stay, which was not even on the lake. We did not have a guide, nor did we need one. Our hostess was lovely. We ate out at restaurants overlooking the lake every night. Our room at the home stay was huge and breakfasts were a great time to interact with our hostess and her husband. We did the audio tour of City Palace, which was perfect. On another day, we hired a driver through our hostess for just $24 to visit Kumbelgahr Fort and the Ranakpur Jain Temple. If we return to India, I would almost certainly attempt to repeat this approach.
Craig is offline  
Jan 20th, 2015, 03:14 PM
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For those of you who haven't been to India, please don't completely discount those tourist destinations and sights! Even those that are highly touristed.

An example -- my husband and I did visit the Bishnoi tribal area, and we loved it because there were some lovely human connections made. My husband has a moustache and the head of the weaving settlement insisted upon combing it out and showing him how to wear it PROPERLY -- like a good Rajasthani should!

And when we went to the tribal area where the opium ceremony is held, well, my husband and the leader (?) hit it off beautifully -- some wonderful moments took place, enough that our guide called us later to say we were invited to come back for dinner!

And don't discount those daily interactions with people as you go about your travels. This is of course true everywhere, but I think it's even more true in India. Everywhere we went we met people who were curious about us and wanted to engage with us. I really should've entitled our trip, "My husband's moustache", because of the amount of attention he got; I have many photos of Rajasthani men who wanted to pose with my husband!

And it IS possible to walk around on your own -- at least, in the smaller cities -- we weren't shepherded around full time.

We did travel 2+ weeks in Rajasthan with a driver, and there were times we felt like we were in a bubble. On the other hand, we also enjoyed driving through so many different regions, which allowed us to see places with a more rural way of life.

We were blown away by India -- it was aggravating and amazing, and somehow, even as we visited the many tourist sites, I think what was so striking is that the extremes of India are everywhere, so that even when you're in a highly-touristed place, the "real" India can't help but come out.
progol is offline  
Jan 20th, 2015, 04:05 PM
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I loved your report and your candidness…and since we're also using C&K in two months, as a fellow Type A, it alerts me to the fact that i better start scoping out places to eat and not rely on the guides. Since this is also our first time to India, and we would love to try to avoid the seemingly inevitable illness, we have also tried to stay at the higher end places…and probably, try to eat at some of them. I agree with your assessment that this will be more of a "travel" experience rather than "vacation" …but to try to achieve some of the latter, I also look forward to some luxury and pampering at the end of a trying day. While I also like to experience some authentic India, frankly, at my age, I'm not up for a chaotic train journey with unhygienic conditions. I only have one Air India flight booked, from Mumbai to Jodhpur, but I think I'll look at the possibility of changing this. I am a bit disappointed in the overall review of C&K, but to be fair, the prices for drivers and guides were so much better than well=known tour operator names. We had used a local tour operator for our China tour and were happy with the experience. If anything, we'll just dismiss a guide for the day if he's not satisfactory and strike out on our own…the main thing is having a driver ferry us around. We are staying at a few rural places so I hope that will satisfy our independent spirit. Looking forward to the rest of your report.
barefootbeach is offline  
Jan 20th, 2015, 05:48 PM
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I'm dreaming of an edit feature on Fodors, but meanwhile wanted to clarify what I wrote above for those who are considering changing plans. Our trip planner was 'high end,' but more in an artsy rather than upscale way - she mostly books museum trips and tribal tours.

Like Craig and progol, our top experiences were serendipitous cultural encounters that happened while we were staying both in palaces and guest houses - an impromptu visit to a girls' school science fair, tea in the village silversmith's kitchen, a chance for my husband to jam on the sitar with musicians, a private arti in Khajuraho, getting our palms read at our guide's home in Varanasi, etc. And because of the time of year we went, we rarely if ever saw other westerners.

We have friends who are there now for the fourth time. They texted to say they wished they wanted to travel somewhere other than India because it's such a schlep, but will never get it out of their system (they just visited Ahilya Fort, dogster's favorite haunt in Maheshwar, where the owner/Prince was in residence).

annhig, you MUST go. barefootbeach, you're in for a treat. The cliché about India is that it's another planet, an assault on the senses. I agree with progol that you don't need to be in the middle of nowhere for the unexpected to happen. Visually India is a trip, but viscerally it's another dimension.

And now back to filmwill's provocative report.
crosscheck is offline  
Jan 20th, 2015, 06:07 PM
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filmwill, Based on your glowing (like a radioactive nugget) report on Air India, I just cancelled our flights and rebooked on JetAir….not sure we'll get our money back, except we may have a leg to stand on because they had a schedule change that I said wouldn't work with our cruise arrival. Nevertheless, DH read your comments and said "Change it".

Just wanted to add my perspective on using guides. Frankly, I like using them less for whatever knowledge they'll impart (too many details get way too tedious and I think we all do enough prior research to know the salient facts) but their main value to me lies in 1) they run interference from being incessantly hassled by touts 2) as a confessed Type A, I am into efficiency and I like that they know the fastest and easiest way into places and buying tickets…know the best vantage points, etc. Especially in India, where traffic & parking is horrendous, if you just have a driver he has to drop you off somewhere and then you'd have to figure out the rest by trial & error…..you can accomplish a lot more in a day with the help of a guide 3) he is a local person that you have all day to talk to and ask questions 4) if there's any kind of a problem, he can fix it 4) as I love to take photographs (yes, candid ones), I feel freer to do so because I can ask the guide if it's appropriate and he/she can ask an individual if it's OK. I think that in most third world type countries (India might quibble with that description), it's common behavior that you'll be taken somewhere for unsolicited shopping but we can handle that with a polite "no". Also, if we end up not liking the guide, I have no problem with sending them home early and striking out on our own. I particularly don't want a guide hanging around while i'm shopping, unless we're in some out of the way place.

A question: Did your guides generally eat lunch with you? In China, some of them did and others didn't…often the guide and driver would eat together.

Again, I'm so looking forward to more details…especially which guides you liked and what restaurants were good. Did you get sick? Please tell where the enforced shopping workshops were so we know to avoid. Thanks again so much for your comments!
barefootbeach is offline  
Jan 20th, 2015, 07:24 PM
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Loving this report Bill. Can't wait to read more.
Kristina is offline  
Jan 21st, 2015, 03:12 AM
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BFB, agree 100% with your 4 points. Wish we had alternative to AI, we already had a bad experience with Spice Jet canceling flights (without giving me notice).
FW, did you go rug shopping after all?
FromDC is offline  
Jan 21st, 2015, 10:49 AM
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filmwill..one other quick question…what did you think of the Leela Palace? I was concerned it might be too far away from a lot of the attractions and was considering the Oberoi….but the Leela looks so much nicer.
barefootbeach is offline  
Jan 21st, 2015, 10:57 AM
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Would you argue that a European who comes to American and spends 3 weeks doing home stays in midwestern farm towns got a better feel for the country than someone who spent the same amount of time in nice hotels in NYC, Boston and Los Angeles?

IMO, it has less to do with how you travel, and is more likely a result of the personality of the traveler. There is no right or wrong way, not even a better way. There is the way you like.

Bill is giving some good tips, and pointing out things that are worth thinking about if you are planning a trip to india.
lcuy is offline  
Jan 21st, 2015, 02:07 PM
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That is a very provocative question, Lucy. I would argue that one would get a better feel for the USA by spending time in the midwest, but I would also argue that staying at a B&B in one of the country's larger cities would provide more incite into the local culture than staying at an upscale hotel. But I take it that's not your point and that your point is that everyone has different travel needs. I agree with that and also agree that Bill is providing excellent info...
Craig is offline  
Jan 21st, 2015, 02:31 PM
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I guess I would have to argue your point. If someone is coming to the US with the express purpose of getting a feel for the essence of the US, then visiting only NYC, Boston and LA will leave an erroneous impression of what the US is all about. (This is just like people from other countries watching movies or tv shows produced in the US and coming away with the impression that everyone is rich and lives in fabulous housing or lives in a dangerous ghetto environment.) An itinerary needs balance if it is to be truly representative, and only a teeny percentage of people in the US live in metropolitan areas like these.

On the other hand, if the purpose of that European's visit is to learn more about those cities and to do sightseeing in those three cities, that is completely different. But, they are not representative of the US as a whole. On our European trips we have visited many small towns and rural areas, and this is completely different from limiting ourselves to Paris, London and Rome. Those cities are not representative of Europe as a whole either.

On five star hotel issue, I think that discussion has been had may times here at Fodors with certain factions believing that 5* is the only way to travel, and others saying that is unrealistic and unaffordable for most people. And, I guess I'd also argue that even in the US the vast majority of domestic travelers do not limit their stays to only 5* properties. A certain demographic does, but it is a very small percentage.

I agree Bill is giving some good pointers on many things, but choices we make when we travel impact our overall experience. Are we looking more for immersion or more for a little bit of exposure while not getting too far out of our comfort zone as far as lodging? On each of our India trips we have said several times that we know certain of our friends would not be good candidates for India, and not everyone is. I am not commenting on Bill; it is just a comment in general on personality and travel style. We have certain friends who are only willing to go the 5* route because they want that buffer zone.
julies is offline  
Jan 21st, 2015, 03:09 PM
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Every country and region has innumerable "feels" and we all touch and react differently, like the proverbial blind men and the elephant. I don't understand why the Midwest gives a better "feel" of the USA than the East Coast or why a city is inferior to the countryside or a hotel is less real than a B&B. They are all parts of the whole.
Marija is offline  
Jan 21st, 2015, 03:32 PM
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I'll definitely get back to your individual posts soon--and Part II. Work has been brutal these past 2 days.

But can I PLEASE ask, in the interest of sanity (and so I can keep up with and respond to everyone's questions), that this thread is limited to discussion and questions about this trip in particular...and not get completely side-tracked by an ethical discussion on how people should travel? I can see this devolving already into gross generalizations (my issue before). I agree the points brought up are all worth discussing. Just preferably not on this thread.

Thanks, guys.
filmwill is offline  
Jan 21st, 2015, 04:47 PM
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In my experience, threads in the Fodors forums never get sidetracked or go off-topic.
rje is offline  
Jan 21st, 2015, 04:51 PM
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Not saying they shouldn't. Create a separate thread for ongoing debate.
filmwill is offline  
Jan 21st, 2015, 07:48 PM
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Bill, I'll carry my question on another thread...
lcuy is offline  
Jan 22nd, 2015, 03:56 AM
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Bill - would I've to hear about your experience in Kerala and the backwaters as we are considering doing that in our upcoming trip. Enjoying this report.
dgunbug is offline  

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