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

 

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

 

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.

Bargaining

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.

o
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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    Seattle

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.

Tips for Travel in Turkey

Arrival & customs – You need to purchase a Turkish visa when you arrive in Istanbul. You’ll need $65 US, in cash. The visa line forms just before you go thru immigration, and is easy to spot. You need the visa before you get in the other line to go through and collect your luggage.
Once you have your luggage, follow the exit signs. Customs is simple, there’s a list of non-allowed items, but you’re not likely to have them, so just use the green gate. If you’re part of a group, this is where someone will meet you as you come out, and they’ll take you to our hotel. Otherwise just go to the ground transportation area to find a taxi into town.
Most meters don’t work so agree on a price beforehand. From airport to Istanbul, either
Sultanahmed or Taksim should cost about $15-25 depending on your bargaining skillsDaily Travelo As a rule, we drink bottled water; it’s cheap and easily available. Other drinks include soft drinks, beer, juices and ayran (a yogurt drink).o We use a van and driver / guide to allow easier access and scheduling when we have small groups. We’ve also driven in rental cars and with Turkish friends,. Turkish buses are clean, modern, air conditioned and very comfortable. The caravansaries of old are now truck & bus stops along the major highways. A group van is handy, so you can carry things you may not want to take hiking, and leave some things in the van. The driver will always be there to watch it.

o Our hotels should be good and complete. Air conditioning is standard in Istanbul and along the coast (it’s not needed in Cappadocia). Hair dryers are usually present. Be sure to carry adapters and transformers if you bring electrical items like battery chargers. An extension cord is useful and can be found in hardware stores in Istanbul

o A typical day will start with breakfast at the hotel between 7 and 8. We’ll start from the hotel between 8 and 10, depending on the itinerary. There’ll be a break for lunch, usually at a local restaurant around noon; sometimes a picnic of local fresh foods and specialties. We’ll be back or arrive at the hotel between 3 and 6 on most days, and supper will be around 7-7:30.

Money

o ATM are common and you can easily get Turkish lira with a debit or cash advance card. Changing money at the airport ATM is fine; we’ve found the rate there to be reasonable. even with the fees, the exchange rate is better than using foreign banks, and MUCH better than getting cash at US banks before your trip

o Credit Cards are commonly accepted for large items, such as carpets, 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. Since they cost the seller more, you usually get a poor rate of exchange.

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.

o Make a copy of your passport and keep it separate from your other 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. I usually carry my walkin’ around money loose in a front pocket; some more is in my wallet, and the rest stored in locked luggage or a moneybelt. Nothing’s more attractive to pickpockets than seeing a tourist partially disrobe to get a few dollars out of a concealed moneybelt!

Clothing

In spring and early fall, the weather should be warm and getting warmer as we move down the coast. We can hike in shorts, but skirt or long pants are suggested in Istanbul. Take swimsuits, although the ocean is going to be cool. Bring a small towel. Some of the hotels have pools, but we’ve found these are usually cool, too.

o 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.

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Goats do Roam
The best way to see Seattle is to leave it…
Acadia – Some less traveled places
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Kevin Phillips The Cousins Wars 
End of the American Century

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Old foreign currency from around the world – Europe

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Old foreign currency from around the world – Europe

Old foreign currency from around the world – Europe

Czech crowns