A Sheltered White Person's Guide to India
I don’t travel much because I don’t like to go more than a day or two without checking the mail. I also don’t like being in places where I don’t know the language and have to do math to figure out how much something costs. So I was pretty surprised when I found myself agreeing to travel to India for my friend Akshay’s wedding. India is getting a lot of attention these days. I have two friends who have both recently taken extended trips to India for business. It seems like travel from the US to India is becoming more common so I thought I’d describe the trip for the benefit of people who may be going and might not know what they’re getting into.
If you’re more of a visual learner, you can view Our Pictures directly.
There’s no escaping the fact that India is a “developing” nation. A lot of the infrastructure we take for granted just isn’t present in India. In a lot of ways, it seems like technology has outpaced infrastructure here. In cities like Delhi, you can get on the Internet pretty easily. But there still isn’t a decent public transportation system (sounds like San Francisco). I think this is common knowledge though. We expected to see naked kids going to the bathroom in the street. Here’s what I didn’t expect:
- Nothing can prepare you for the traffic or the way people drive. At a glance, you wouldn’t be able to determine if they drive on the left or the right here because they do both. Even on divided roads, there are cars going the wrong way. And the roads aren’t just populated by cars. Your driver will be weaving between cars, bikes, pedestrians, camels, cows, dogs, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, etc. The driving was terrifying, but it all seems to work out just fine. We only saw 7 accidents and were only involved in 3. And the pedestrian who we hit and who doubled over backwards onto the hood walked away without apparent injury after giving our driver a dirty look.
- There’s this smell. I don’t know what it is. For a while, I thought it was roasting peanuts because you see that on the street a lot. But it totally permeates the whole city and after a few days, a whiff of it makes you sick. Someone suggested it might be wood burning. I’m still not sure, but we smelled it in every city we visited. And the air is super thick, especially in Delhi. Even inside! We never really figured out if it was dust, desert air, or pollution, but we had a lot of trouble breathing at first when we arrived.
- Prices are strange. It’s almost like there are two classes of money. Some things are cheap — incredibly cheap. In Delhi, we would get a car with a driver for the entire day for 800 rupees (about $16). At McDonald’s, a soft serve cone, served with a smile, is 7 rupees (about 14 cents). Even fancier restaurants have cheap food. You can get a good lunch for a few dollars and soda is dirt cheap. But if you step up to a really fancy restaurant or eat at your hotel, suddenly you’re paying prices frighteningly close to what things would cost in the US. You can stay at a guest house for dirt cheap or you can pay up to $300+ per night for a 5 star American hotel.
- The begging is annoying, but you learn to tune out the child carrying the baby tapping at your window disturbingly quickly. What surprised me is that most of the drivers do little to shelter you from beggars or scammers. It’s kind of like they view it as a legitimate part of the economy and don’t want to get involved. The only time our drivers really did anything is when a beggar wouldn’t let us close the car door or when a kid tapped the car a little too aggressively.
- There really is no “calm part” of town. The whole time we were in Delhi, I kept thinking that surely there must be some really cute touristy part where we can overpay for things but still get good deals. It really doesn’t exist, or at least we didn’t find it. The bazaars are crowded and you’re so stressed about pickpockets and being suckered that we didn’t buy anything. In many of them, you’re bombarded by beggars and people calling out “Excuse me, Sir!” trying to get you to look at their stuff. Shopping was much better in Jaipur (see below). One trick to finding some calm is to go into places that charge a fee, like some of the monuments.
- There’s a fine line between a scam and a standard business practice. Your driver has deals with certain shops and gets a kickback if he takes you there. The rickshaw driver who takes you to the Taj is willing to wait for you outside the gate and demands no payment until you get your ride back. For parking, you pay some guy with a stack of bills who seems to make up the payment amount randomly. These things all seem suspicious, but this is just the way it works.
New Delhi, Days 1-4
We left San Francisco on December 20th at 7:30pm and arrived in New Delhi on the 22nd at 11:00am. Our hosts were kind enough to arrange for a driver to take us to the guest house (The Rosewood Inn in New Delhi). We were pretty tired and just blown away by the traffic and the style of driving. So we unpacked a little and sat around being culture shocked in the guest house until our friends Eric and Rachel arrived.
That afternoon, we rented a car/driver and went to the Red Fort, which was a big red fort. As our first sightseeing expedition, it was a pretty good choice. We were still pretty nervous though because we weren’t used to having so many people around us, many of whom wanted to part us with our money.
Afterwards, we went to see India Gate, which is a gate commemorating… I forget. War heroes? Anyway, it was getting dark so we had the driver take us to the government buildings (Parliament, Prime Minister’s House, etc.) to check out the architecture. We also saw monkeys just playing on a fence along the way. This made Marni very happy.
That evening, the bride’s family hosted the out of town guests at their house. We were pretty tired from traveling, but we enjoyed meeting everyone and eating food that we could trust (we grew less suspicious of food later on in the trip). We ate our fill of food and then realized that these were just the appetizers.
Something weird happened with some local drummers but I couldn’t really figure out what was going on. Someone said that they were uninvited and showed up because they knew there was a wedding. One guy was shaking maracas in one hand and waving money in the other. We’re not sure what that was about. Then I guess they refused to leave until everybody danced. It was a little strange.
The next morning was the Mehendi and Chura ceremonies. This was my favorite wedding event. There was a short ceremony after which all the women attached these gold things to bangles around the bride’s wrists (yeah, I clearly only had a vague sense of what was going on). After that, the women all got to pick some bangles for themselves and get henna done on their hands. Then food. Then, once again, we realized that we had just filled up on appetizers.
When we got back, we teamed up with Eric and Rachel and took a car to Connaught Place, expecting to do some shopping. Unfortunately, the place was way too busy to actually buy anything. There were scammers left and right and we basically just wanted to leave as soon as possible. Every time we’d stop to get our bearings and figure out where to go, someone would approach us.
That evening was the Shagan and Sangeet. From what I gathered, this was the official engagement ceremony. Not surprisingly, there was lots of food. This was when I began to wonder whether my taste for Indian food would extend to eating it every day for two weeks. As a side note, this is also when the wedding guests started to bond. The guests from the US were housed by the bride’s family in two guest houses. It was kind of fun — sort of like a college dorm.
The next morning, Marni and I felt confident enough to strike out on our own. We walked around the South Extension neighborhood by the guest house. We went in some department stores that turned out to have mostly western items. Then we crossed under the road to the other side that had better shopping. Marni bought a shirt and we got followed/pestered by a child for three blocks who was spinning a string on his hat hoping it would provoke some sort of payment.
Before returning to the hotel, we decided to check out McDonald’s. I got a McAloo burger. It was a deep friend potato pattie with some sort of spicy mayo on it. Marni got a McVeggie and fries. I later got an ice cream cone. The whole meal cost us less than $4. Even more surprising, the workers at McDonald’s in India actually have pride in their job. They were polite and helpful. Oh, and the power went out while we were there. I think we experienced a power outage in every city we visited (except Bombay) and nobody really seemed to notice.
That afternoon, Marni and I rented a car/driver and set out for Himayun’s Tomb. This was my favorite site in Delhi by far. The main tomb was pretty nice and all, but there was this other tomb that you could actually climb the stairs and get on top of. It was just a neat place to explore. Feeling like we had finally gotten a handle on Delhi, we told the driver to take us to N Market so that Marni could buy some clothes at Fab India, a place our new friend Rishad had suggested. Instead, we ended up at M Market, a crowded block of upscale western-style shops that had little to offer us.
Foolishly thinking that N block was probably next to M block, we walked a few blocks over and ended up at D block. We saw a store advertising itself as a “supermarket” and went in hoping to score some imported British candy. As we were looking at the candies, the entire staff was watching us (we were the only customers). Eventually, the manager came over and introduced himself and gave us a tour of the store. He even had an employee carry our cart for us as we loaded up on candy, snacks, and juice for the room. As it turned out, our purchases only totaled $3. The manager was thrilled with our visit though and gave us both little bags of candies on our way out. Overall, I’d say the shopping experience was 10 times better than Safeway in San Francisco.
Things got kind of scary when we tried to find our driver. We didn’t know where he parked and there was a little girl following us begging for money. As I looked around, I realized for the first time that I was really far away from home in a place where I didn’t speak the language. Just as I was ready to freak out, our driver waved to us and we rushed over. The little girl tried to hold the car door open the driver pried her away and we were off.
We decided to tour the Lotus Temple, which houses Delhi’s members of the B’hai faith. There was so much traffic though, and we were kind of shaken by almost being stranded so we just got out to take pictures then went back to the hotel.
At some point, we went to the National Museum, but I can’t remember which day this was.
Agra, Day 5
Agra is known as the home of the Taj Mahal… and not much else. Everyone told us to spend as little time as possible in Agra and that was good advice.
The drive took about four hours. On the way, I think our driver hit one parked bicycle, one woman’s shoulder, and then one man — right in the back. We also saw all manner of animal life on the way including the bear monkey tourist trap. My advice — don’t take a picture of the bear monkey.
We arrived late in the day. The guide book said to visit the Taj Mahal at sunrise but the hotel said it would be foggy so we went in the evening. They don’t allow polluting vehicles close to the monument, so we had to go on bicycle rickshaws. Surprisingly, there were no beggars and few scammers at the Taj Mahal. The worst annoyance was the guides who wanted us to hire them.
The Taj visit was good. It wasn’t too crowded and we even ran into Jonathan and Alissa, who were also at Akshay’s wedding. Since we had been in India for 5 days, I had become used to ignoring anybody who tried to talk to me. So when someone tried to advise me on where to take a picture, I just walked away. He persisted though and it turned out he worked there and was just trying to show me how I could get the classic reflection shot at that time of day. It’s kind of sad how all the solicitation makes it difficult for honest people to offer help.
Our hotel in Agra was really nice — the Mughal Sheraton. The food was really expensive though and Marni and I both felt sick the next day. We took some cipro and I felt really loopy the rest of the day but we both got better as we drove to Jaipur.
Jaipur, Days 6-8
When we were in Delhi, Marni and I both held out hope that Jaipur would be a better place to shop. Everybody told us not to set our expectations so high — there would still be huge crowds and lots of traffic. But Jaipur was just what we needed — good shopping, less traffic, and a really great hotel.
We stayed at the Umaid Bhawan, a family run heritage hotel. It was a beautiful palace with lots of twists and turns in the hallways. Our room was great, the food was good, and the price was excellent. We also were able to get on somebody’s wireless connection, which made me happy.
The shopping was definitely the highlight of Jaipur, but there were other things to do as well. On our way there, closer to Agra, we visited Fatehpur Sikri which is an old abandoned city. I was still feeling ill at this point, so I didn’t do much exploring. In Jaipur though, we had a great time at Amber Fort. We neglected to actually learn anything about it though as we explored the various passages and rooms, often finding ourselves completely isolated from any other tourists. We also got some really great views.
We also went to the City Palace, which was really beautiful. But best of all, we finally got to buy some stuff as we wandered around the Pink City for a few hours. We picked up some bangles, some shirts, and some more bangles.
I wish we had spent another day in Jaipur. There was more to see and lots more to buy.
Goa, Days 9-11
Goa is known (I guess) for its beaches and parties. I guess it’s also known for being impossible to get a hotel room on New Years. We paid $330 per night for the supposedly five star Ramada Caravela Resort plus a mandatory $125 per person New Years Dinner.
It turns out that the Ramada Caravela is in South Goa, which is less developed and touristy than the north beaches. The beach at the hotel was pristine and largely empty. That was great, but getting a cab to anywhere interesting was super expensive. And the hotel wasn’t so great. The facilities were nice, but the food was so-so, the rooms smelled bad, and the service was sub par.
Goa was a nice break from the insanity of the other cities, but we didn’t do a whole lot there and we really overpaid.
Mumbai (Bombay), Days 12-13
We only had a day and a half in Bombay. We flew in for the evening of the final reception and spent the next day shopping and eating. We managed to find just what we were looking for — a store called “The Bombay Store”. It was touristy, overpriced, and an incredibly pleasant place to shop. It had everything we needed — gifts of all sorts. And the prices, while more than street prices, were still less than you’d pay in the US so we were satisfied.
Eric got us reservations at a fancy restaurant that supposedly attracts the Bollywood crowd. It was very much like being in LA. We sat on the roof, had dishes like “curry pumpkin ravioli”, and paid prices that were pretty reasonable overall, but pricey for India.
In Mumbai, we stayed at the brand new ITC Sheraton Towers Grand Central. It was a beautiful hotel and truly a five star property (unlike the Ramada in Goa).