(The following was originally posted on FlightCentre UK and is re-posted with their permission. It is part of a series of articles about my tour with G Adventures through the Golden Triangle of India.)
In the final installment of this series from the winner of our G Adventures blogging contest, Jenna describes some of the lows you may experience in India and shares her advice on how to deal with them.
This series began by spilling the beans on the better-you-know-now truth about India: especially in the mega-cities, your experience will be more like swinging on a trapeze than a walk in the park.
To help cushion those possibly bumpy circus landings, many people (including me) choose to travel as part of a tour. The series continued by disclosing what hindsight has taught me about the four most important factors to consider when choosing a tour provider.
But even if you are guided by the best, you can still be in for a shock if your expectations deviate too far from reality. That might be the case in a tourist-dense place like the “Golden Triangle” of Delhi-Agra-Jaipur. To help bridge the gap, here is a tell-all breakdown of our trip along with tips to keep in mind.
The arrival at Delhi is like plunging into ice water.
Get ready for trash-filled alleyways, swirling dust that permeates your clothes, outright staring, hanging live wires, and beggar women and children that seem to anticipate every move you’ll make. And that’s just the short walk from your taxi to the hotel.
Tip #1: The culturally responsible choice of supporting independent hotels has its pitfalls unless you’re willing to pay Western prices (e.g., vanishing hot water, six-legged friends, brownish linens). If that’s not your cup of tea, consider sweetening the pot with a G Adventures “comfort tour” for a more balanced experience.
Our first days, we explored Old Delhi and then drove to Agra in order to arise at dawn and capture the Taj Mahal at peak luminescence. After a feast of lavish historical monuments we were treated to humble home-cooked food and a Bollywood-style dance party by a local family. Midweek, additional monuments marked our path to and beyond a Rajasthani palace hotel near Bharatpur – our nicest lodging of the trip.
Tip #2: Enjoy your reprieve from the constant request for rupees and the demoralizing trial of flatly ignoring the multitude of poor and maimed people that are requesting them (lest you send the signal that you will eventually buckle, and are willing to have them trailing you for blocks).
Truly unforgettable is the stop at Abhaneri, a rural village where clay cups dry in the sun next to flattened cow patties intended for biofuel, children take shifts in a local schoolhouse, and a beaming Brahmin woman with a toothless smile invites you into the temple.
Tip #3: Pay close attention to the scenery on this stretch of road less traveled. Technicolor sarees dotting the fields, decorated oxes pulling carts of sugarcane, and continual camera-worth scenes reveal the astounding truth that this isn’t an advertising montage, but daily life.
The wealthy “Pink City” of Jaipur, with its living maharaja, intricate palaces and forts, and irresistibly intricate jewelry shops seems less phased by tourists than elsewhere. On our final night, we chuckled along with the raucous crowd at a Bollywood movie, and tried to get our head around the feeling that an eternity seemed to have passed by in a week.
Tip #4: A wise man once told me that in India, a lie isn’t considered quite as bad if you’re lying to benefit someone other than yourself. Try not to take it personally when someone looks you square in the eye with a price double that posted on the price list. It’s a zero sum game here, where money in your pocket equals less money in the family budget, and every rupee counts.*
The Golden Triangle is not India
There’s no way to sugarcoat this: after our tour, most of us couldn’t wait to get out of India.
Several people were seriously disappointed, because they imagined something completely different. The large cities underrepresent India’s rich diversity of climate, language, custom, mood, religion and ethnicity, and overrepresent its sharper edges. They offer a mind-blowing mix of history and transformation, but also embody the fight for survival of about 50 million people.**
Do you find yourself mesmerized by films or books bursting with color and the sweet smell of mangoes, charting the languid pace of people somehow both playful and wise? Let’s just say Elizabeth Gilbert’s ashram in Eat, Pray, Love was most definitely not located in center-city Delhi. If you want to fall in love with the country, you may just have to go further afield.
Tip #5: This is why I strongly recommend that a trip to the Golden Triangle be combined with an extension to one of India’s softer spots:
The most important tip of all: head for something completely different
There’s Kerala, birthplace of Ayurveda healthcare, whose white beaches and swaying palms frame a smiling population that is nearly 100% literate. Be surprised by the large presence of beef-eating Christians, but for a real treat choose the seafood dishes perfumed with coconut oil.
Pondicherry’s French colonial influence, evidenced by wine shops and French speakers, contributed to a city that looks like an Indian New Orleans (if you can imagine that). Be mesmerized by the aroma of fresh flower garlands, which you will see looped through the ponytails of Tamil women as they make their way down a wide beach promenade.
In the forested Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh, McLeodganj near Dharamsala carries the nickname “Little Lhasa” because of the Tibetan exiles flocking to the home of the Dalai Lama. Be moved by their story as you sit speaking with orange-clad monks in a coffee shop, and thankful that India has developed a policy of religious tolerance and support that provides for their safe haven.
If you prefer to stay in Rajasthan, head to Udaipur, where half of our group chose to recuperate. The term “ethereal beauty” is vastly overused, but if anyplace merits the description it’s this mountain-ringed lake city spilling with white water palaces. Be transported as you sit on your hotel’s rooftop terrace, starlight glittering on the water, and feast your ears on pure silence for the first time since arriving in India. You’ve earned it.
I’d like to extend my thanks to Flight Centre UK and G Adventures for making this trip possible and to the Narayan Niwas, Udaipur for providing accommodation and a place in which to rekindle my romance with India.
*UPDATE: In a Twitter conversation with @teresafromnz about these articles and her extended stay in India, she said, “It ‘s time to leave when you stop seeing the street children.” It is a profound statement on persistent poverty in India and the rollercoaster emotions experienced by so many travelers, but also a telling indicator of human desensitization over time. Most people in India will never leave the country to clear their head, and that’s worth remembering if you ever feel irritated by behavior that you find unsociable or unethical.
**Based on the current population of India’s 10 largest cities.
Did you have a different or similar experience in India? Tell me about it – I’m curious!