India‘s treasures are so vast and varied that it is easy for travelers to miss the rewards unless they know where to look.
The authors of Luxe Travel Wallahs are Westerners who have spent many years in the subcontinent and know where to go, what to see and do,where to stay, where to shop and what to eat to experience the maximum from this incredible country.
Let us open India up for you in a way that conventional travel agencies cannot.
What is India?
Whether you land in Delhi, Kolkata, Mubai or Hyderabad; India can be daunting, but if you are prepared with some basic knowledge the experience can be more exciting than stressful.
More than one country
“India is not a nation, nor a country. It is a subcontinent of nationalities.”
Although India is one sovereign country it is made up of 28 states and 6 territories, which could all be considered separate countries; each with their own climate, language, customs, dress codes, food and skin hue. It doesn’t mean take 28 suitcases, but you do need to think about where you are going.
A land of a thousand languages
English is commonly used, which is fortunate for both Indians and visitors, because a local from Delhi would not be understood in Karnataka, Kandhara or Karaikal if it wasn’t for English.
“India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the Equator“
Big and diverse
Lets look at some comparative facts. India has area of 3,287,000 square kilometres compared with the USA (3,700,00 sq km) and Australia (2,976,000 sq km), but with a population of 1.3 billion.
Agents ain’t agents
Unless you are a real adventurer, we recommend an organized itinerary arranged by someone who knows India’s foibles – Luxe Travel Wallahs is one that allows you personal options, but also helps you discover the hidden treasures not known by most agencies.
Hurry up and wait!
It’s a timeless land, not only historically, but the people don’t see time as important. Nothing opens until after 10.00am and in the cities everything seems to be closed on Sundays. If you make a time to meet someone, allow for delays. Instead of becoming frustrated while you’re waiting, enjoy what’s going on around you – you won’t be bored.
Indians are very obliging when asked politely for help, however a useful observation is that head-nodding can mean yes, no, maybe or even possibly.
“In India even the most mundane inquiries have a habit of ending this way. There may be two answers, there may be five, a dozen or a hundred; the only thing that is certain is that all will be different.”
I’m here; now what?
The Indian rupee comes in denominations from 5 through to 1000 rupee. It is subject to fluctuations but as a guide, is worth about 18 Australian cents, 12 Euro cents or 16 US cents.
ATMs and Money exchanges are available at the airports, but only use non-commission agencies, even if money-lenders are offering better sounding rates. They are the masters of sleight of hand.
Major credit cards are accepted by hotels and larger stores and restaurants, however carry rupee for taxis, tipping and tit-bits from smaller shops and restaurants.
How to get around.
When you arrive
It is usual for a pre-booked hotel to have a driver waiting for you at the airport. Confirm this with your booking. The driver will be standing outside the barrier holding a sign with your name on it. Don’t panic when you see the mass of drivers – your’s will be there. Before you arrive the hotel will have sent you the driver’s mobile phone number. If you have any unforeseen hiccups, call him direct. He will take you to the pre-arranged hotel.
If you have not arranged a pickup, you can pick up a driver at the airport – but be prepared with a print-out of your accommodation address (with a Google map) as there are often many places with the SAME name. All the registered drivers speak English and the very good ones will be available as your guide 24/7. Ensure the driver is registered and ask to see their registration and their mobile (cell) phone number. Ask for a total rate. To your destination (that’s where that Google map comes in handy). Don’t agree to a rate per kilometer as you may go via another city!
Usually drivers will ask for an increased rate for air-conditioning. Only pay the extra when you feel the air conditioning. Sometimes it is: “We have air conditioning, but today not working.”
Drivers tend to take you to their favourite shops but they might not offer the best choice or prices; only commission to the driver. Commission is an acceptable, even essential practice, but you should do your homework on places to shop and eat.
Everyone seems to have a mobile (cell) phone!
When you book your accommodation ask them to arrange for a local SIM card, with roaming for all states. Take or buy a cheap, basic phone such as a Nokia. Use your tablet or lap-top, connected to local, WiFi for emails.
Infernal internal travel
Unless you have a death wish, don’t drive – especially in the cities, and especially don’t drive a motorbike. If you insist, make sure you increase your insurance.
Make sure taxis are fitted with a meter, that work! Negotiate a set fare if you can show the driver where you’re going.
Delhi has a fantastic new underground Metro and is fast, clean and safe – if you know where you’re going.
Train travel is a great alternative for longer journeys. The system is generally punctual, and you will get clean sheets and pillows and generally a meal. Avoid the bathrooms if possible – the toilets may be just a disgusting hole in the floor!
Unless you are traveling between cities, avoid buses – they have to compete with more nimble vehicles and animals on the crowded roads.
Part of the fun of travel in India is going by Tuk Tuk. They are fun, inexpensive and everywhere.
Bicycling tours are available in most cities, however, there are too many alleyways and obstacles to make them enjoyable – take a rickshaw and enjoy the ride – you can work off the calories in the hotel gym!
Come fly with me!
Internal airlines are pretty good, but allow yourself plenty of time to get to the airport and note that they are strict with luggage allowances. Jet Air is a recommended carrier, with clean planes and great food. We have also had good experiences with India Air and Kingfisher Airlines. When booking give them your local phone number so they can advise of any changes to schedules, Always ring before heading to the airport as flight delays are common.
Avoid Delhi Belly
To enjoy your trip by staying healthy. Avoid tap water and ice, salads or any food that has not been washed in bottled water, even in hotels. Drink only from sealed bottled water. Milk products have all been boiled or pasteurised, so are OK. Only eat or drink from sealed, refrigerated packaging.
Toilets, bathrooms, W/Cs, loo’s and dunnies.
Toilets can be a horrible experience in India, but they are necessary, so get used to them – most tourist destinations are fitted with western style lavatories, however, you can still encounter the dreaded squat toilet.
Observe basic health precautions. Indian bathroom habits are different – their after-loo practice is to use water rather than toilet paper. The locals use water in their left hand. This seems revolting to most westerners, but may be more hygienic than the toilet paper on offer. Recommended: carry soap or disinfectant solution to wash your hands, OR carry your own toilet roll.
Wash your hands regularly. Massive recent advertising campaigns have increased the awareness of bacteria and although Indians are pedantic about cleanliness, hygiene and washing, you still don’t know who has handled the money, handrails or your food.
“India is not a good place to be a nail biter!”
Food, food and more food.
Travelers’ tales are full of experiences with a dodgy vindaloo.
One of the great pleasures of this country (or is it 28 countries?) is the food – delicious, tasty and in more varieties than you can imagine.
Luscious local fruits that can be washed (in bottled water) and peeled by you are safe to eat, however avoid salads.
Vegetarian cooking in India is a recommended and delicious experience – you might even consider turning vegetarian and experience the exotic flavours of regional dishes – unbelievable!
Indians have perfected the art of combining colour, flavour and nutrition. Vegetarian food is rich in protein and will satisfy the hunger of even the most voracious meat eaters. A majority of Indian women are vegetarian.
Poorly cooked meat is a health hazard. Only eat meat where the locals eat. Make sure it’s fresh and well cooked. This is not an issue in reputable hotels or restaurants.
Meat is considered expensive by locals. Mutton and chicken appear on most non-vegetarian menus, however, the mutton is usually goat (nice goat though!) You will rarely see beef on Indian menus as Hindus regard cows as holy animals.
Asking for a curry in India can cause confusion as most dishes are curried! They may be spiced, but not necessarily with curry leaves as expected by westerners. Each Indian dish will be different and will vary from region to region – and that’s the excitement of Indian cuisine.
Keep your wits about you.
Indians have turned scams into an art form, so be aware of touts, thieves and conmen, but even the most wary can still get caught.
Cool is best. Take your time – don’t be forced into parting with your ‘hard earned’ without giving yourself time to think about it. Most con artists use pressure on bewildered tourists to ply their trade. Use a bit of Zen calm, breath deeply and smile as you consider each offer.
Always keep your passport and wallet close to you where pick-pockets can’t get at them. If traveling on an overnight train, sleep with your valuables under your pillow. Generally there will be a security guard on trains. It is advised that you go first or second class as the fares are very reasonable.
“India happens to be a rich country inhabited by very poor people”
In India begging is illegal. If you are caught giving or receiving, both parties are considered guilty, however, this is a way of life as it is in so many parts of the world and for first-time visitors can be very confronting. In a country of 1.3 billion people there are more beggars than you can imagine, but don’t start giving charity to beggars or you’ll be broke in no time. Accept their plight as a part of the Indian culture – they do! It may help to know that many beggars are professionals run by Indian Fagins who exploit the poor to ask for money. Many are victims of mutilation to make visitors feel sorry for them, so under no circumstances, no matter how tragic a child appears, don’t give them money – give food instead.
“There are some parts of the world that, once visited, get into your heart and won’t go. For me, India is such a place. When I first visited, I was stunned by the richness of the land, by its lush beauty and exotic architecture, by its ability to overload the senses with the pure, concentrated intensity of its colors, smells, tastes, and sounds. It was as if all my life I had been seeing the world in black and white and, when brought face-to-face with India, experienced everything re-rendered in brilliant Technicolor.”