Wednesday, May 30, 2012

India in a Nutshell

The India Gate in New Delhi

Sara's top three
Jaisalmer night in the desert
Kaziranga National Park

David's top three
Jaisalmer camel ride

Impressions:  A land of contrasts -- magnificent buildings amid squalor, terrible smells and tasty food, colorless deserts and the most colorful clothing, architectural styles ranging from Mughal to British colonial.  We were constantly surrounded by people and noises.  Some days we relished them and others we couldn't wait to get away.  What a country!

Money:  The local currency is the Indian rupee.  $1 USD = 50 rupees.  Although India certainly is an affordable place, it was much easier than we expected to be separated from our money.  One culprit was tipping.  It seemed as if everyone went out of the way to move our luggage a few feet, open a door, or do some other kind of small service, all for a tip.  We are very accustomed to tipping at home and don't mind customary tipping at all, but our experiences in India were different.  It wasn't that people were trying to provide helpful services; they merely wanted to do anything possible to entice us to give a tip.  This problem was exacerbated because ATMs gave cash in very large bills, at least by Indian standards.  It was very difficult to get anyone to make change for us (including shops and hotels), so sometimes we would end up having to choose between giving a ridiculously large tip or nothing at all.  Another culprit was scams.  For example, we paid to get into the Jama Masjid mosque in Dehli that had a beautiful tower we wanted to climb for views over Delhi.  After paying and receiving a ticket we made our way to the stairs to the tower.  Another man sat at the entrance to the stairs requesting another payment to climb to the tower.  It was so frustrating knowing that we were being scammed and that there was nothing we could do about it.  Then we were scammed once more when a third man wouldn't let us bring our camera to the top of the tower without paying for a ticket for our camera.  We spent three times what we expected just to get to the top of a tower.  Similar situations played out several times over the course of our trip.

: Indian food is delicious!  We only wish we had been able to enjoy a bit more of it.  For our first week and a half in India through Assam, Delhi, Varanasi, and Agra we ate and enjoyed some fabulous southern and northern Indian cuisine.  We found that thalis (platters with many different dishes) were the way to go to get lots of variety.  Saravana Bhavan was a favorite!  But about midway through our stomach problems began.  First David came down with a mild case of Delhi Belly and lost his appetite.  Sara's followed only a couple of days later.  We spent our last week in India drinking a lot of lassis (yogurt smoothies) and eating a mix of Western and Indian foods that were easier on our stomachs.  We didn't get a terrible case of Delhi Belly like some travelers, but we were disappointed not to enjoy quite as much Indian food as much as we would have liked.

Transportation:  We got around India by plane, train, and car.  We flew from Assam to Delhi and then Delhi to Varanasi.  We had a private car drive us from Agra to Fatehpur Sikri to Jaipur, again from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur, and finally from Jodhpur to Udaipur.  While it is certainly possible to get around India on your own, we were really glad to have a driver for a few of the legs -- a really quick, comfortable, and relatively inexpensive way to get around.  We took two overnight trains in India -- Varanasi to Agra (10 hours) and Jaipur to Jaisalmer (14 hours).  Although we traveled in first class, the trains weren't nearly as comfortable as those we had taken in Southeast Asia (thanks in large part to the folks with whom we shared cabins).

Religion:  Hinduism is the primary religion in India.  The Hindu temples often are very colorful, which adds even more vibrancy to the already colorful country.  The temples that we visited tended to be empty of anyone other than tourists and people selling souvenirs, so we witnessed far less of Hinduism in practice than we did of Buddhism.  In addition to Hindu temples, we visited several mosques and Jain temples.

:  India is a huge country, which is why it surprised us so much to learn that the entire country has one time zone.  This meant that in Assam (far eastern India) it got light as early as 4:15 am.  It was quite a shock on our first morning when we woke up at 4:30 am to see the rhinos and it was already light outside.  The flip side is that it got dark at about 4:30 pm. 

Weather:  We were in a lot of different areas, so temperatures varied.  In Assam it was great weather,  a bit cool even.  Short sleeves were good for the daytime, but a sweater and pants were perfect at night.  It was very hot everywhere else we went.  Temperatures in the daytime often hit 100 °F.  We knew ahead of time that we were visiting during the beginning of the hot season, especially in Rajasthan, so we really can't complain.  It was also very dry, dusty, and sunny.  We only had one day with a bit of rain while we were in Jaipur.  We definitely looked forward to the cooler weather in Nepal for the next leg of our trip.

: It was hot, which meant that we wanted to wear clothing that was as light as possible both in color and material.  We wore long sleeves much of the time to protect from the sun.  We also tried to keep our shoulders and knees covered as that seemed to be the cultural norm. 

Accommodation:  We really liked our accommodation in India.  We stayed in several havelis, which are old Indian mansions that have since been converted into small hotels.  Pal Haveli in Jodhpur was probably our favorite - fantastic views from the roof and a great location in the center of the city.  The Umaid Bhawan in Jaipur was a close second.  We also stayed in a few small guesthouses.  One in particular in Delhi (Eleven Homestay) was wonderful and contributed to our enjoying Dehli so much.  Accommodation was fairly inexpensive in India.  We certainly could have found cheaper rooms than those we chose, but staying in the havelis and guesthouses added a lot to our experience.

Internet:  Although we didn't have Internet at all of the places we stayed, it was easy to find cheap internet cafes in every city.

: We washed our own clothes quite a bit in India because they dried so quickly.  In  Jaisamler (in the desert) we washed clothes and about three hours later they were already completely dry!  We also had laundry done inexpensively at a few of the places we stayed.

Planning the trip
:  We had a long list of stops that we wanted to make around India.  We knew we wanted to go to Kaziranga National Park, but in order to book a hotel near the park we had to go through a travel agent.  Because we were planning to see so much of India in such a short time we decided to use the same travel agent to help us plan our transportation (i.e., booking drivers and purchasing train tickets) and book our accommodation.  It would have been really difficult to visit so many different places without the help of an agent (we used Nivalink and had a great experience), so we are really glad we went that route.

Someday when we are back
:  We would love to travel to Kerala in southern India, Kolkata, Mumbai (although David's already been once), Goa, and the mountainous regions of northern India.  And we might just have to travel back to Kaziranga National Park if we ever have the chance in hopes that the park would be open this time!

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