A beginner’s guide to India

It’s fascinating, it’s exotic—and it’s far more accessible than you think.



From the November 2007 issue of the magazine.


When we made our first trip to India this past November, we weren’t sure what to expect. Our first two weeks flashed by in a swirl of crowded streets, spectacular landscapes and moments of jaw-dropping beauty and heads-pinning poverty. But, as much as we felt we were adapting to this exotic new world, we just weren’t brave enough to face one challenge: street food. We had been tempted by delicious-looking roadside fare in Delhi, Udaipur and Jaipur, but we had never succumbed for fear that we might pick up a trip-wrecking stomach bug.

It took a TV show to change our minds. In our hotel room one night, we watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, in which the globe-trotting chef chows down on the streets of Mumbai. Enough’s enough, we thought. Soon after checking into a luxury hotel in Varanasi, near the banks of the Ganges River, we threw ourselves at the mercy of some of the lowest-rent establishments on the planet.

It was the best decision of our three week trip—and not only because the samosas and deep-fried veggie balls covered in yogurt and chili sauce were outstanding. Our experience proved to us that
India dazzles you when you step out of your comfort zone, if only briefly. After our meal, we felt that we had passed an initiation rite in which the country slapped us on the back and said, “Welcome, friends!”

Like many people, we had thought for years about going to India but had always put it off. We figured it was too hot, too crowded, too polluted, and too far away for a brief vacation. What we discovered during our trip is that India is also beautiful, friendly and surprisingly accessible.

We landed in Delhi, India’s capital, then headed west into the state of Rajasthan, famous for its desert landscape and Mughal forts and palaces. We stayed beside Ranthambore National Park, where 400 sq km of parkland provide a home for about 30 tigers, then we moved on to Bundi, where you can climb to a ruined fort, home to thousands of bats. Next up were Udaipur, India’s version of Venice, and Jaipur, the state’s biggest city and the base for exploring pink sandstone palaces. Finally, we flew to Varanasi, where devout Hindus bathe in the Ganges, and back to Delhi where we made a day trip to Agra and the Taj Mahal.

India was admittedly not the most relaxing trip we have ever made. Poverty and pollution abounded. But so did wonderful food, friendly people, and a kaleidoscope of cultures. We were initially wowed by India’s overwhelming exoticism, then the frenzy of activity turned us cranky for a few days. Finally, though, we emerged in love with all things Indian. We’ve traveled through a dozen or so countries on four continents and can honestly say that India is hands-down the most fascinating place we’ve visited.

The key to getting the most out of your first trip is knowing when to indulge yourself and when to scrimp. We let our budget-hunting side get the best of us in Delhi. Culture shock—the unpleasant kind—hit us when we saw our hotel room: $60 a night bought us a grimy shower with a trickle of water, threadbare sheets and a view of an alley that was home to a pack of street dogs. It was a good lesson. We would urge you to spend $250 a night in megalopolises like Delhi and Mumbai to get a comfortable room in a central location.

Elsewhere in India luxury is cheap. For example, in Udaipur, a city of 16th-century marble palaces and tranquil lakes, we stayed in a mansion. We sipped afternoon chai while gazing upon the lake below—and all of this for about $50 a night. In other cities we stayed in familyrun places that offered candlelit dining, impeccable service and a deep sleep for under $100 a night. We even splashed out on a luxury “Swiss” tent on the outskirts of Ranthambore National Park. This all-inclusive slice of fantasy, with trips into the park to see tigers, samba deer, king-fishers and wild boar, cost $150 a night for the two of us.

We discovered that plane travel within India was the way to go for all but the shortest distances. Airlines like Jet and SpiceJet are modern, safe and efficient, and they hop over the country’s creaking infrastructure. Air travel also lets you see more of the country in a briefer period of time. We flew twice—from Jaipur to Varanasi, and then Varanasi to Delhi—and the total cost was about $300 for each of us.

We took a more frugal approach toward the rest of the trip, not because we wanted to pinch pennies, but because we wanted to experience the real India. We followed our own itineraries, fought our way through traffic on cycle rickshaws and three-wheeled tuk-tuks, and ate at a delicious array of establishments.

Some of our more memorable meals were eaten in places that would make a food inspector’s head spin. Take Karim’s, a shabby (though world-famous) restaurant in the middle of Delhi’s bustling spice market: we ate tandoori chicken there that will forever make Indian food in Canada seem like a distant echo. Or the squash curry and stuffed eggplant we ate at the homey Queen’s Cafe in Udaipur—so delicious and different that we immediately signed up for cooking lessons, which were held on the floor.

We haggled ferociously for just about everything. Picture India as a billion people eager to do business with you—all for a flexible price, of course. Language is rarely a barrier, since higher-end merchants are fluent in English and even the lowly street vendor will be able to get his point across. On our first night in Udaipur we met Sam, a young man who invited us into his shop to discuss the price of a few T-shirts. When we offered him a third of what he set as his starting price, he was taken aback, but smiled. The negotiations that followed gave us the opportunity to talk about who we were and what we did when we weren’t matching wits over 50 rupees (about a dollar). When we passed by Sam’s shop the next day, we waved at each other like good friends.

If you are too tired to haggle, you can shop with ease at stores such as Anokhi and Fabindia, where prices are fixed. In smaller towns, you can also find women’s collectives, which operate in the same way. You’ll probably pay more here, but the quality is often outstanding. Either way, India is a shopper’s paradise, especially for clothing and textiles—and compared to prices in the West, things are essentially free there. Next time, we’ll pack nothing but socks and toothbrushes and buy everything else on the fly.


Six steps to enlightenment
Still nervous about booking a trip to India? Don’t be. All it takes is a little preparation:

• Remember that India is big and you’ll be able to see only a slice of it on your initial visit. We started with the allencompassing guide to India published by Lonely Planet. This gave us a sense of where we wanted to go. Once we narrowed our focus to a specific region, we bought the Footprint guide to Rajasthan.

• Plan your visit between November and the middle of February. This four-month period of relative comfort is sandwiched between the rainy monsoon season and the start of unbearably hot weather.

• Visit your local travel health clinic and find out what shots you’ll need. We received shots against diphtheria, tetanus, polio and hepatitis A and B. We also received a liquid vaccine, called Dukoral, to help ward off some effects of diarrhea and E. coli. Malaria pills are necessary and pricey (about $6 a pill). You may also want to get shots for typhoid, measles and, if you’re venturing into the countryside, rabies.

• The high season is a busy time in India, so we suggest you book most of your accommodation and travel from Canada, either through the Web or a travel agent. You can find information on makemytrip.co.in about booking domestic flights within India.

• Take U.S. dollars and traveler’s cheques. ATMs are few and far between. We used credit cards only at hotels.

• At least three weeks prior to leaving, apply for a traveler’s visa to enter India.

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