India: yay or nay? A guide to Asia’s most intriguing city
India, yay or nay? A guide to Asia’s most intriguing democracy.
by August Cosentino
The thought of a visit to India might make you nervous. Perhaps you’ve come across something negative in a newspaper or on a TV show. Or a friend has returned from India, burned by a bad experience.
Hopefully, the following guide will allay some of your fears. It represents my unbiased observations after spending nearly two weeks in India.
India has 1.43 billion people, which makes it the most populous country on the planet. That means that beyond the confines of your hotel, you will see lots of people. Everywhere. Both in the larger cities and the most remote villages.
Consider this a blessing. Indian people are gentle, courteous, and friendly. They are as curious about you as you are about them.
Indians are also patient and chill under the most trying circumstances, such as traffic jams that would cause most New Yorkers to blow a gasket.
HIRING A GUIDE AND DRIVER
We suggest you forego any romantic notions about seeing this country on your own. Sign up for a group tour—the smaller, the better—or hire a guide and driver like we did.
In geographic terms, India is huge (1,269,219 square miles), the size of several European countries combined. Its key cities are located several hundred miles from each other. While there are local cheap flights, not all cities have air connections. So having a driver who can travel four or five hours and traverse these long distances is extremely helpful.
Plus, India’s roads are packed with cars, trucks, auto-rickshaws and motorcycles, 24/7. That's in addition to the cows, water buffalos, goats, and dogs which often stray onto the local roads and highways. To navigate all this traffic without an experienced driver just isn't smart.
Hiring a private guide who knows the country well can help you appreciate India better. Good ones can also navigate the maze of red tape, long ticket lines and parking challenges that are common in a large Third World country.
—The Taj Mahal. The thing you often hear people say about world-famous attractions like this is that they look better in pictures than they do up close. The Taj Mahal puts the lie to that notion. There’s no better way to appreciate the Arabic calligraphy, the intricacy of the marble carvings, and the colors of the inlaid stone than to see this 17th-century memorial from a husband to his late wife up close.
For the full story on my Taj Mahal experience, please visit https://acsntn.substack.com/publish/posts/detail/138275260/share-center. Thank you!
—Beyond the Taj Mahal. Our trip also focused on three major cities in Rajasthan, the largest state in northwestern India.
We started in Jodhpur, the Blue City, where we stayed within the historic Umaid Bhawan Palace, which is the home of the current Maharajah and is a major attraction itself. We toured the majestic 17th-century Fort Mehrangarh with its mirrored salons and lavish courtyards, enjoying stunning views of the surrounding countryside from the summit.
En route to Udaipur, our next stop was the Jain temple, whose marble dome rivals that of ancient Rome. On our itinerary in Udaipur: the City Palace, built in a flamboyant style, and considered the largest of its type in the state of Rajasthan. We stayed at Udaipur’s six-star Lake Palace Hotel, the former summer palace of the royal dynasty of Mewar. It was situated in middle of Lake Pichola and was accessed via launch from the hotel’s dock on the mainland. In Shilpur, the city’s cultural enclave, we heard lively bands playing native instruments, and watched a sinewy dancer balance six jugs on her head.
In Jaipur, the Pink City, we viewed the majestic Hawa Mahal, built from pink and red sandstone; toured the Amber Fort & Palace, the residence of the Rajput maharajas and their families; and visited Jaigarh, a military fortress where we saw the world’s largest cannon. We ended our visit in an historic cinema watching a Bollywood movie, complete with an action adventure hero, a love story, and Busby Berkeley-type dance numbers.
LODGING AND FOOD
—Lodging. If you value cleanliness and service—and who among us does not—choose quality over getting a “good deal.” Spending a bit more in India is worth it; the Taj and Oberoi Hotels where we stayed were mostly former 17th-century palaces and offered every 21st-century amenity imaginable.
—Food. American fans of Indian cuisine, rejoice: Indian food in India is uniformly fabulous. But beware: it's spicier than what you find in the States.
A “thali” (rhymes with dolly), a sampler plate of various Indian specialties, both non-vegetarian and vegetarian, is often available on menus and makes trying new dishes easy. However, a thali comes with a lot of food, sometimes too much, so consider the a la carte menu which offers somewhat more manageable portions.
More good news: the average Indian meal can cost less than you’d think. Lunch in a modest Indian restaurant with beer can run you as little as $18 USD. And that’s for three people.
Finally, an online search may show you a number of noteworthy restaurants in a particular city, but we found getting to them was a challenge because of the traffic. Hence we frequently opted to dine in the hotel.
Currently there are about 82 Indian rupees to the US dollar, so 100 rupees works out to about $1.20. However much money you change, always ask for the smallest denominations possible. This will be helpful for entry into museums, lavatories, etcetera.
—Beggars. India has them, but frankly we didn’t see a lot of them. Occasionally, when we were stuck in traffic, a mother carrying a baby—or else the woman’s child—would approach our car and tap on the window. While our local guide was not always sympathetic to beggars, he did feel it worth giving to them when they were truly in need.
From what we saw, the streets of a big city like Jaipur seemed the furthest thing from poverty. On the contrary, they were brimming with small-business activity. Not the kind you’d find in the States, but this is the Third World, not Fifth Avenue.
—Clothing. India has mostly warm weather year round so khakis or shorts are perfectly acceptable dress. Some temples may ask you to cover your legs, so keep a pair of sweats handy. And you must always remove your shoes in a temple, so wearing socks at all times is helpful.
—Toilets. Here they are called “washrooms.” Outside your hotel, washrooms in many service stations, botanical gardens, and museums don’t have toilet paper, so keep some handy.
—“Delhi Belly.” We strictly obeyed what we were told about staying healthy in India and had no issues. Remember: 1) only drink bottled water and 2) avoid eating fresh fruits and vegetables that can’t be peeled (e.g., salads).
On this trip, we skipped Delhi and Mumbai, which may have led to some very different impressions of India. Plus we toured India in the comfort of an air-conditioned SUV with a highly qualified guide.
So hopefully you’ve decided India isn’t as scary as you imagined. We personally think it’s a pretty spectacular place. Namaste.
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