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



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


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


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.



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


The Glass Palace Amitav Ghosh Like his previous book, In an Antique Land, The Glass Palace is about Indians living in other countries. It starts with the British invasion of Burma in the 1880’s and follows a young Indian boy, Rajkumar…

The Calcutta Chromosome – Science Fiction with a Bite… When a patient has syphilis, cure them by infecting them with malaria. This amazing piece of medical trivia drives the plot of one of Ghosh’s
first books.

Iraq, Afghanistan & the Taliban – a Review of Recent Books America’s longest wars are being fought in faraway countries that until recently were little known to
most Americans. Here are a number of recent books that help fill these gaps

More India travel resources


Travel in Turkey – Istanbul

When we visit Istanbul, we try to stay in the Sultanahmet area since it’s in easy walking distance of many major attractions, including the Grand Bazaar. And  Hagia Sophia is a short walk towards the Golden Horn, while nearby is the sprawling complex of the Topkapi palace which takes a day in itself.  Topkapi host everything from the sultan’s harem, Mohammed’s sword, jeweled clothing of the sultans,to the famous Topkapi jewels and the kitchens that fed thousands of Janissaries.  And that doesn’t include time for the separate museums on its ground such as the Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Middle Eastern Countries. Splendid imperial mosques include the Blue Mosque, the Suleymanie, and Hagia Sophia. Vivaldi played in the background as we toured the enormous Basilica cisterns.

Sultan Ahmet Camii ( Blue Mosque ) glows in early evening light
Sultan Ahmet Camii ( Blue Mosque ) glows in early evening light
Galata Tower originally built as a fire watchtower in Istanbul, Turkey
Galata Tower originally built as a fire watchtower in Istanbul, Turkey
Head of Medusa as column decoration
Head of Medusa as column decoration
Ancient columns in water

Ancient columns in water

Sometimes magnificent works of art are preserved by a quirk of fate. An Ottoman pasha had the mosaics of St. Saviour whitewashed, and they were only recovered in the 20th century. These mosaics and frescoes of the Chorae  Church form one of the visual highlights of any tour. If you’re interested in calligraphy, you’ll want to visit the small museum devoted to this artform near Bayezit.

In addition to the imperial mosques, many exquisite, smaller mosques are scattered thru the city, and display incredible Iznik tiles and other decoration.

In the Taksim area, Gezi Park was quiet on our most recent visit. There was a small protest near Galatasaray, but the police presence was much larger. Several dozen police and a water cannonvehicle nearby. A hundred yards up the road, a similar detachment of riot police; repeated several times all the way back to Taksim Square itself where there were more police and tanker trucks to re-supply the water cannon. Luckily the day ended peacefully.

How to Bargain When Traveling

American travelers are often hesitant to plunge into a foreign bazaar and haggle with sellers. But this is the natural and expected way of doing business in much of the world, so a little preparation can help you enjoy your trip more, and maybe bring back a story with your souvenirs.


The following are some general rules and advice for travelers in foreign markets and bazaars gleaned from experiences of bargaining in Turkey, Nepal, India, South America, China and North Africa.  In most of these countries US$ are accepted in additional to the local currency, so it’s a good idea to bring $1 and other small bills. Few countries have any currency black markets any more, so there is rarely any legal problem with using US currency.  English is often spoken,
but in countries like Morocco, French may be the common language; but many bazaaris speak multiple languages.   These suggestions reflect my experiences and preferences, which are highly personal.  There are many other approaches.

Have fun – don’t take this too seriously.  Negotiating a sale should be of benefit to both sides, not adversarial. Approach the process with a sense of adventure.  You probably can’t insult the vendor, and
nothing they say to you should be taken personally.  Treat it as a game of charades.  Even if you share few words in common, you can use gestures. Many vendors have calculators to make your offer.  Others write on their hands if paper isn’t available.  Write your counter offer if the seller doesn’t understand

o Pay what it’s worth to you – ask what something is made of, but especially in markets, covered bazaars and souks,  be wary of claims that sound exceptional.  Don’t expect to “buy a camel for donkey prices.” Ask questions before making any offer.  Look at several items.  You’re not likely to find antiques or high quality jewelry on a tabletop, but be alert since it can happen.  Better quality metals should have a hallmark (eg, sterling silver often has a 925 mark).  Usually, choose items because of their value to you, not because it’s claimed to be sterling silver or pure jade.  In many countries, silver, gold and semi precious stones in shops are sold by weight, with no consideration of the work involved.  So look for hand crafted items.  Here you’ll be bargaining not for the item, but for the price per gram of silver, etc.

o  Sellers never lose – don’t worry about offering too little.  If you do, they’ll probably just laugh and ask you to give a little more.  On rare occasions, a vendor might just say it’s too low and give up, so you have the option of raising your price or trying somewhere else. Walking away will usually let you know if your price is too low.  If it’s within range the vendor won’t let you walk out without making a counteroffer.

o  Making low offers at the start of a trip is an excellent way to  gauge the marketplace, since there are no rules for pricing and it will vary from city to city and even market to market.  Some guidebooks tell you to offer 1/3 or 1/2 the asking price, but astute vendors will have read these guide books too! This general rule can cost you money if the vendors are asking 5 or even 10 times what the item costs.  On a trip to China I saw the same item in different cities being offered for 250, 150 and 80 yuan. In all cases, the price I finally paid was between 15 and 30 yuan.   Items in tourist areas are likely to be inflated much more.  And if it’s a quick stop, such as a tourist bus or boat stop or outside a museum or other attraction, be ready to bargain quickly and sharply (I’ve closed some deals through the window as the bus drove away).  These can be places to get very good prices, since the vendors sell high volumes, but they’ll also start very high.  But don’t make a low offer if you’re not interested in the item at all – the buyer may take your offer, and the only real insult is to make an offer and then not honor it.  Once you name a price, you should be willing to pay that price if the seller agrees.  But you’re never obligated to come to an agreement.

o Quantity discounts – you’ll usually do  better by combining several items.  You might start bargaining for one item, then offer to buy 2 for a lower price.  Or, if the bargaining is stalled, add another item to the pile and accept the buyer’s last offer.  Changing currencies can be useful if you can do the math quickly in your head (sellers will always be able to do these calculations faster than you can).  Eg, after bargaining in the local currency, offer dollars instead.  Locals will often be able to get a better rate of exchange than you can, or dollars might be a hedge against inflation in some countries, so US$ can sometimes command a 10-20% premium.  If you pay by credit card, expect to pay a few percent more.  Be a bit careful if you agree on a price in dollars and then use a credit card — the amount has to be entered in the local currency, so check that the exchange rate used is a reasonable one.

o  Using your local guides – This varies both in the country, and how long your guide will be with you.  If the guide is just with you for the day or if you’re with a large, organized tour, it’s rarely useful to have them bargain for you.  Some local guides don’t like to let their groups free in bazaars or souks, when they can earn a commission by taking them on a ‘factory’ tour. (Other times the reason is just the hassle of keeping track of everyone, and then having the entire group wait when someone gets lost in the souk. If you’re on a large group tour like this, courtesy demands you stay with the group, and find time to return later on your own.)  If a guide is with you for a longer time, they may be able to find special prices or items for you.  Many guides have connections that can get you discounted prices.  Sometimes this can result in a good value, sometimes not – much depends on your skills and appetite for bargaining.   For example, in Egypt, a young man became my guide for the day and took me to several shops making inlaid boxes and other crafts.  The prices were 50-75% lower than what I had been able to bargain for in the bazaars.  The ‘guide’ of course expected (and got) a good tip, but everyone still benefits and these experiences are part of the fun of traveling.  Another problem with using a go-between is that you’ll need to tell them your actual price at some point, and how interested you are in an item.  It’s also more difficult to use the walk-away ploy when a guide does your bargaining.

o  Factory tours – Some years ago, organized tours changed from having stops at established shops, to having ‘educational’ stops at factories which just happened to have extensive showrooms.   If you educate
yourself beforehand, these can be excellent places to buy.  The factory tours range from extremely informative to thinly disguised selling.  You’ll often be told your group has a special discount (15-20% is common), but additional bargaining is usually expected.  These places usually have higher quality items than what you’ll see on the street, especially if they do a lot of overseas shipping or other wholesale selling.   And there will be a wider range of items to choose from.  Just remember that your local guide usually gets a commission on these purchases.  That said, you can profit from these tours too — quiz the presenter, asking them how to tell their high grade jade from what you just saw on the street for 1/10 the price, or what makes a difference in weaving techniques, etc.   Since these shops usually ARE selling a higher quality, the answers will usually be informative and accurate.

Where to shop in Turkey

Turkey offers many opportunities.

o Bargaining is expected.

o The Covered Bazaar in Istanbul is a great place to explore and purchase gifts. Do bargain. Gold is a good buy, and the best baklava shop is just across the street on the way back to Sultanahmet hotels

o Cappadocia is the best place for carpets, and try to go as a group for at least one carpet factory tour. Good bargains are also available in Istanbul.

o Leather goods, jewelry, lace, antiques and other crafts

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

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 While 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

Shopping in India
A Jodhpur experience

Best Way to See Seattle …. Is to Leave It

After boarding, go to what will be the aft of the boat – the end attached to the dock – and go out on the viewing deck. As you leave Seattle, there are great views back to the city skyline, showing the sprawling city from Seattle Center and Queen Anne hill on the left (north), then south to the  stadiums and dockyards. On a clear day, you can even see
Mt. Rainier, over 50 miles away.

Seattle ferry, leaving waterfront
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Seattle ferries
One of the best ways to see and explore Seattle is to leave it! Take one of the Washington State ferries. The boats run frequently.. There may be waits for cars on weekends and holidays, but bikes and walkers always get on.The ferries bound for Bremerton and for Poulsbo leave from the same dock in downtown Seattle. In 2017, adult fares are about $8 for adults, half that for seniors. There’s a $1 charge for bicycles, and about $12 for a car and driver. On the return, passengers and bicycles are free.When we bicycle, we load our bikes in the car and park on the street either to the north or south of the ferry terminals where parking is free, then bike the mile or so to the ferry. Otherwise you can park across the highway from the ferries and walk on or, if you plan to explore beyond the ferries, drive on.
When you tire of these views, grab a coffee in the snack bar, and then walk the length of the ferry to the forward viewing decks.  Now you’ll get views of the many Puget Sound islands, and the Olympic mountain range in the distance.  The ferry is likely to be followed closely by seagulls, and cormorants can usually be seen on the pilings drying their wings. Other shorebirds, coots, ducks are frequently seen. There are whales in the area, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll see one. Sunset panorama, Seattle skyline, sailboats

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Once you reach the terminus, you have several choices. You can stay on the ferry and return right away, or  you can walk or bicycle in the small towns nearby, returning for the ferry. There’s usually a short steep hill to get away from the dock, but it flattens out after that. You can drive to visit nearby cities of Port Gamble, Port Orchard or Port Townsend. The latter has several music festivals during the year and  many antique shops. It also has a ferry that goes to Whidbey Island so you can drive a loop trip. On Whidbey you can go north over Deception Pass bridge [the pass is the narrow bit of water under the bridge]. Or drive south to pick up another small ferry to Mukilteo, just north of Seattle. Port Gamble also hosts an annual Civil War re-enactment that offers a fun weekend, with 2 battles scheduled every day, and the soldiers’ camps to visit in between. These towns are also famous for their many Victorian houses. Many of them are now open as Bed & Breakfasts

Yet another option is to drive to nearby Olympic National Park for hikes. There are trailheads near the Hood Canal bridge link up to Highway 101. The park headquarters is atop aptly named Hurricane Ridge, with the best views of this wilderness park. But, since there are no roads into the main parts of the park, unlike Yellowstone or Yosemite, you really need to hike to appreciate everything the park offers. You can hike in the rainforest to the glaciated volcano, Mt. Olympus and then explore the Pacific Ocean beaches in just a few miles, without leaving the park. If you’re going to the Olympics, you’ll probably want to stay overnight. There are many campgrounds, and inexpensive motels in towns like Sequim, Port Angeles and Forks.

With a little forethought, you can come back into Seattle at sunset, or view the city lights at night.

Books – Venice

Venice Guides and Travel writing

Venice Rough Guide Venice and Veneto: Great introduction to Venice.  Its restaurant and hotel suggestions are good, but it really shines in describing the city, and offering suggestions for many days’ walks — much better in fact, than several ‘walking’ guides we also consulted.  Good maps complement a sensible layout of this maze of a city.

The ‘Brief History’ does an excellent job, and prepares you for delving deeper with an extensive reading

“Nobody arrives in Venice and sees the city for the first time. Depicted and described so often that its image has become part of the
European collective consciousness, Venice can initially create the slightly anticlimactic feeling that everything looks exactly as it should.
The water-lapped palaces along the Canal Grande are just as the brochure photographs made them out to be, Piazza San Marco does indeed look as perfect as a film set, and the panorama across the water from the Palazzo Ducale is precisely as Canaletto painted it. The sense of familiarity soon fades, however, as details of the scene begin to catch the attention – a strange carving high on a wall, a boat being manoeuvred round an impossible corner, a window through which a painted ceiling can be seen. And the longer one looks, the stranger and more intriguing Venice becomes “

—– John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice

This is a delightful book — both for the opinions expressed and the wonderful pomposity with which they are presented.   It’s impossible not to learn about art and architecture from this book, but it also (perhaps not intentionally) makes Woody Allen’s or Steve Martin’s New Yorker pieces seem like downers.  The man has no humility and there is no opinion other than his. For example – “I have said that the two orders, Doric and Corinthian, are the roots of all European
architecture.  You have, perhaps, heard of five orders: but there are only two real orders; and there can never be any more until doomsday.”
  Yet somehow the clarity and vitality of his description allows you to continue reading.   I was fortunate enough to pick this up in Venice, so I was able to search out his examples of the 5 worst buildings in Venice, and similar Ruskinisms.  — Some examples:

“The work of the Lombard was to give hardihood and system to the enervated body and enfeebled mind of Christendom;  that of the Arab was to punish idolatry, and to proclaim the spirituality of worship.  The Lombard covered every church which he build with the sculptured representations of bodily exercises – hunting and war.  The Arab banished all imagination of creature form from his temples, and proclaimed from their minarets, ‘There is no god but  God’.  Opposite, in their character and mission, alike in their magnificence of energy, they came from the North and from the South, the glacier torrent and the lava stream; they met and contended over the wreck of the Roman empire; and the very centre of the struggle, the point of pause of both, the dead water of the opposite eddies, charged with embayed fragments of the Roman wreck, is VENICE.”

“…this solitude was anciently chosen by man for his habitation. They little thought, who first drove the stakes into the san and strewed the ocean reeds for their rest, that their children were to be the princes of that ocean, and their palaces its pride;… Had deeper currents divided their islands, hostile navies would again and again have reduced the rising city into servitude; had stronger surges beaten their shores, all the richness and refinement of Venetian architecture must have been exchanged for the walls and bulwarks of an ordinary seaport. Had there been no tide.. the narrow canals of the city would have become noisome, and the marsh in which it was built pestiferous. Had the tide been only a foot or eighteen inches higher in its rise, the water-access to the doors of the palaces would have been impossible… Eighteen inches more of difference between the level of flood and ebb would have rendered the doorsteps of every palace, at low water, a treacherous mass of weeds and limpets, and the entire system of water-carriage for the higher classes, in their easy and daily intercourse, must have been done away with. The streets of the city would have been widened, its networks of canals filled up, and all the peculiar character of the place and the people destroyed.”

Ruskin’s Venice : The Stones Revisited by Sarah Quill (Photographer)
This makes the perfect and beautiful companion book to John Ruskin’s eccentric views of this city. Using Ruskin’s text as a guide Quill also wanders the city capturing Ruskin’s ideas, while producing her own view of this captivating island fantasy.

John Julius Norwich — A History of Venice

shorter than his Byzantium trilogy, but just as readable

Fiction & Essays

  • Vikram SethAn Equal Music – set in Venice, portrays the intimate workings of a string quartet.
  • Thomas Mann – A Death in Venice
  • Blue Guide to Venice
  • Geoff Dyer – Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
  • Jan Morris The World of Venice
  • Joseph Brodsky – Watermark – essays by the poet from a winter spent in Venice
  • Jason Goodwin – The Bellini Card – Yashmin the eunuch leaves his beloved Istanbul to investigate a mysterious painting in Venice. One of a series of mysteries set in 19th century Ottoman empire
  • Dorothy DunnettNiccolo Rising (House of Niccolo) one of several of her books that take place in Venice
  • Ian McEwan – The Comfort of Strangers – the eeriness of Venice and its moldering nobility set the backdrop for this twisted tale. The movie with Helen Mirren and Christopher Walken is unforgettable
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Travel Resources

Cascoly Travel & Tour information for worldwide destinations.

Head of Medusa

Our specialties: Turkey & Greek Islands 

National Geographic Maps

Hercules, Nemrut Dag


Europe Travel & Images

Czech crowns
Old foreign currency from around the world – Europe

International currency – British pound

Old foreign currency from around the world – Europe

Old foreign currency from around the world – Europe

Czech crowns