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India – Tips for Travel

After more than 2500 years, much of the indigenous culture of India remains same in temples and much of daily life outside the cities. You see it with the casual religiosity of the guides, ganesha on dashboards of rickshaws, drivers stopping in early morning to leave marigolds at a small shrine.

The age of statues and shrines are often hard to estimate; they may be centuries old, or installed last year. Personal the reactions are similar – people halt their 21st century lives and enter the religious stream that has coursed for millennia. Nowhere else on earth do you find this profound snse of an ancient heritage, and spiritual confidence, combined with daily patterns of life. It’s as if Socrates still wandered thru Athens asking awkward questions.

Exploring India in small groups gives us the flexibility larger groups are denied. Some differences are obvious – large buses can’t go to as many places, especially the narrow roads of the hill countries. With small groups we can quickly change the itinerary and changes to fit the group, or to take advantage of opportunities for photo ops and other interactions with local people.

A valid visa is required for India and can be obrained from Indian embassy or consulate in your home country. Easier is to also get your Indian visa online. With valid visa you can visit Darjeeling & Kalimpong; but for SIKKIM a SPECIAL INNER LINE PERMIT is required but is easily available at no extra cost.

On arrival, pick up your luggage and head for the green ‘nothing to declare’ exit.  One advantage of arranging at least the initial transfer is that someone will meet you as you come out, and they’ll take you to our hotel. This is a welcome treat after the long flight to India

 

Clothing

o The weather will likely be warm wherever you go, except for the hill stations in fall and winter. The monsoons will determine how much rain you should expect. A skirt or long pants are suggested, as shorts are still not a common sight.. Take swimsuits for the hotel pools or ocean. Bring a small towel.
If trekking, low, hiking or walking shoes are sufficient, no need for heavy boots.

o A small, flat rubber stopper is helpful for washing clothes in the hotel sinks.

 

Daily Activity

o As a rule,  drink bottled water; it’s cheap and easily available. Other drinks include soft drinks, beer, juices and lassi (a yogurt drink). Be careful on the latter two items if you’d can’t confirm their provenance.

o Hotels: Air conditioning is usually available where it’s needed and along the coast.  Hair dryers are usually present. Be sure to carry adapters for electrical items like battery chargers.  Modern equipment rarely needs transformers.

o A typical day will start with breakfast at the hotel between 7 and 8. We leave the hotel between 8 and 10, depending on the itinerary. There’ll be a break for lunch, usually at a local restaurant around noon; in more isolated areas this will be a dhaba or local truck stop with mud floors and oven, and usually very tasty, food and freshly baked breads. We’ll be back or arrive at the hotel between 3 and 6 on most days, and supper will be around 7-7:30.

Traffic in India is a unique experience. It can be nerve wracking, but it seems to work – our driver’s motto: “good horn, good brakes, good luck”. We generally used chauffeured cars or vans for distance travel, and local transport like taxis and auto rickshaws in cities. The new metro in Delhi is excellent and expanding rapidly.

Hindu Sadhu At any shrine or major tourist stop there will be sadhus or other holymen. Most of these are people who have entered the 4th stage of Hindu life and have renounced worldly possessions. Usually, you’re approached and the itinerant offers a blessing – he wraps a colored thread around your wrist, says the blessing and dabs some kumkum paste on your forehead. While always denying there is any expectation of money, a small baksheesh of 10-20R is usual. Hindu Sadhu


Money

o ATM are common and you can easily get Indian rupees with a debit or cash advance card. Changing money at the airport ATM is fine; we’ve found the rate there to be reasonable

o Credit Cards are commonly accepted for large items, such as carpets and jewelry, but be careful that a reasonable rate of exchange is listed, and be prepared  to bargain.

o Now that ATM are so common, we no longer carry Travelers Checks, but you may wish to have them for security. They can be more of a hassle to cash, but in some cases (again, carpet sellers) they are preferred since it becomes a cash transaction.

o Cash – US one dollar bills are easily accepted and often preferred because of inflation. Bazaars, markets, street vendors readily accept dollars, and dollars can be handy for a quick tip if you’re on your own, for taxi fare, etc.

I try to start each day with a pocketful of carefully hoarded 10 and 20R notes. During the day, I try never to pay the exact amount for anything, always trying to break a 100 [$2] or 500 rupee bill. Yet by day’s end, most of it’s gone – given to Sadhus, random guides, altar attendants or for puja.

 

Elephants miniature painting on silk

Food

Indian food is wonderfully varied, and tasty. It ranges across the spectrum of hotness and spiciness. The south is mostly vegetarian with a lot of seafood. The north, especially Rajasthan and Punjab are more meat oriented, due to the Moghul influences. In hotel restaurants, hotness is usually toned down for westerners, but you can still find authentic dishes. In urban restaurants the food can be spicier, but you can let the waiter know. If you like hot food, it’s a pleasure, for the many different varieties of heat and spice that can be created.

 

 

Planning your trip to India

I designed a 6 week itinerary that gave us time to explore, but also to relax. We hired a car and driver/guide for the tribal areas of Orissa, since there is little public transportation there. This gave us the freedom to visit local weekly markets and small isolated villages. We selected Puri as our base, since it is right on the coast, but Bubaneshwar is another reasonable starting point, with easy air connections from Delhi or Chennai. Email let me design precisely the itinerary we wanted, with a local agent based in Agra to make most of our hotel reservations, and thus we had the added security of a local contact for the unexpected.

Our costs ran about $250 per day for the 2 of us, including 5 domestic flights. A large portion of the cost was for a private car and English speaking driver, petrol [the Indian version of gasoline], & tourist travel permits.

You can spend less and travel rougher using all local transportation.  Local transportation is good between major cities, but can be infrequent off the main tourist routes, so you’ll spend much of your time waiting for buses and trains. Good quality hotels run from $30-100 / night, and it’s often difficult to spend $25 on dinner for 2. At roadside dhabas [truckstops] a filling lunch, with unlimited freshly made breads costs about $1. Entry fees for major landmarks are reasonable, and many temples are free. We hired local guides on the spot for $5-20 depending on the length of the tour.

 

Miscellaneous

o Check your health insurance plan so you will know what will be covered in case of need. Carry phone numbers and other information with you.

o Make a copy of your passport and keep it separate from your traveling papers. It’s also handy to have copies of your credit cards, airline tickets, etc.

o Theft isn’t a major problem; just be careful as you would in any major city. Pickpockets and purse-snatchers are the biggest problem, especially in the markets or on public transportation. Just be alert

 

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