I traveled to India from Dec 27th, 2011 to Jan 23rd, 2012. The best photos from my trip are posted in the following album. Be warned - there are close to 200 photos in that album! If you want to read the comments I have posted under most of these photos, click on the album below to open it in a new window and view the individual photos with comments.
Here are some of my experiences, impressions, India travel tips, and such, in no particular order:
1. I have almost never gone on trips by myself. I usually travel with family, friends or colleagues. This time, in India, I went on a long trip on my own. My total stay in India was for four weeks, and I spent half that time (the second and third weeks) traveling on my own. Parents were not very pleased! In addition, I went on another 2-day trip with my parents.
2. Although I did travel to most places on my own, I have to mention that I stayed with friends or family during most of my travels. That was a huge factor in making my trip so much more convenient. I stayed in hotel rooms for only 3 days during the entire trip. Incidentally, one of the hotels I spent a night in was called 'Gayathri Rest Rooms' (at Bhadrachalam)!
3. During my trips, I traveled by buses, trains, auto rickshaws, a taxicab (car), boats and flights. Most of the tickets were purchased either the day before my travel or the day of travel. Even the two hotels I stayed at, I did not do advance booking. I walked in to rent rooms and got them almost immediately. Only 3-4 times did I purchase tickets more than one day in advance. One of those times, I had to cancel the train ticket within minutes after purchasing it due to a change in plans. I lost Rs 48 (just under a dollar) on that cancellation.
4. I deliberately did not purchase any tickets in advance. When I started my travels in India, I had a good idea of the places I wanted to visit. But beyond that, I did not do any more research or planning. Before leaving for India, I had decided that I would travel in India without my usual detailed planning. This was a goal / challenge I setup for myself to go outside my comfort zone.
5. Given India's huge population and the enormous number of people who are usually vying for any tickets (train and bus tickets get reserved weeks in advance!), I thought I would have a tough time with my ad hoc ticket purchases. That was not the case at all. All tickets and reservations were shockingly easy to come by at short notice, and I never paid more than a very nominal extra amount due to not booking well in advance!
6. If it takes 7 to 12 hours to travel to some place in India, an overnight train journey is an awesome way to do that. You get to sleep comfortably in the train, you save on one night's hotel expenses and the travel experience is much smoother than a bus trip on Indian roads.
7. Indian Railways' tatkal booking scheme is a godsend for people who don't want to book their tickets weeks in advance. Tatkal literally means instant. You can reserve train tickets under this scheme the day before travel, starting at 8 AM. Tatkal tickets are not available to travel agents until at least a couple of hours later. Which means, private travelers like you and I have a head start ahead of travel agents to get our tickets. The tickets can be booked online and you don't need a print out of the ticket in order to travel. All you need is the ticket confirmation sms or email on your phone, and you are good to go.
8. I took great advantage of the tatkal scheme while I was traveling in India. I did not have to worry about making travel plans days in advance. While on the road, I would look up the train schedules on my phone, a couple of days before I wanted to go some place. The website http://erail.in/ was awesome for this. Then, I would have a friend or my sister buy me a ticket online, on the train of my choice when the tatkal booking opened at about 8 AM, on the day before my travel. I would instantly get an sms and an email on my phone confirming my reservation. We never had a problem getting a ticket this way. Unfortunately, Indian Railway's online ticket purchase system is still not phone browser friendly. That is the reason I had to get a friend or my sister to buy tickets on the computer. If not, I would have bought the tickets using myself using the phone. I fully expect this to be rectified by the time I go to India next (I hope!).
9. I never felt unsafe in all my travels. Only in the crowded places in old Hyderabad, around the Charminar monument, did I hang on to my wallet and backpack a little more closely, and took photos with my phone instead of with my camera. I felt very comfortable and safe everywhere else, even in the crowded markets of old city Jaipur. I also did not feel like I was being cheated or taken advantage of for most of the major purchases. Of course, the fact that I am a native Indian male with glorious brown skin helped keep people's attention on me to a minimum. :-)
10. It is a given that when doing small shopping / purchases, every seller quotes a higher price to every buyer, including to the locals. The more foreign the traveler looks, the more outrageous the quoted price could get. I am sure that I paid a little more for most small things that I purchased than a real local and/or an Indian woman would have paid. I accepted this and it did not bother me much. It helped that when I converted the cost of most things (or the extra amount I thought I was paying) to US dollars, it was usually an extremely small amount.
11. Once, I thought an autorickshaw driver in Rajasthan was trying to cheat me and after much arguing and haggling, paid him Rs 5 (about 10 cents) less than the price he asked for. Later, when I double-checked with somebody else, to my utter chagrin, I learnt that the price quoted by the driver was actually fair! In my defense, the price quoted by the driver was about 7 times the metered price! Apparently, the metered prices had changed in Jaipur not too long ago and most autos were running with the old meters.
12. Autorickshaw drivers almost everywhere in India refuse to turn on the meter when they realize that you are not a native of that city. They insist on quoting a fixed price before you get in. In places like Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, they often refuse to turn on the meter even for local people. Unless I was in a real hurry, I always refused to hire such autos and waited for a guy who agreed to turn on the meter. Most of the times, the metered price turned out to be almost the same as the price quoted by the drivers who refused to turn on the meter. In fact, 2-3 times, I ended up paying more on the metered price than the price quoted by a driver I refused. Which means, that the driver I refused would have actually made less money from me by not turning on the meter! Given these facts, I have no idea why the stupid auto drivers refuse to turn on the meter and instead prefer to haggle with customers, making everybody uncomfortable. I rejected such autos on principle.
13. Rajasthan is an awesome place to visit and extremely tourist friendly. Unfortunately, I did not get to see as many places as I would have liked to because I reached there with a stomach flu that kept me indoors for the first two days of the week I spent there. Fortunately, the flu was totally cured with just one day's worth of medicine from the local hospital. But, I couldn't go to any other city in Rajasthan except for Jaipur. Definitely have to go back to Rajasthan.
14. We went all the way to Agra to see the Taj Mahal on a Friday, without doing adequate research to know that the Taj is closed to visitors on Fridays! So, we had to make do with seeing it from afar, from a park across the Yamuna river behind the monument. It wasn't bad for a long view, but it was not the same as actually visiting one of the wonders of the world!
15. Every time I had to fly in or out of the Bengaluru airport, the morning fog delayed my flights from a few minutes to 3 hours! Aren't modern flights supposed to be able to land and take off in low visibility conditions? Or, does that only apply to military aircraft?
16. Indian roads are getting better and better, especially the highways. The reduced travel time, convenience and joy of freeway travel is coming to India slowly but surely. Although there are too many toll booths, and they are not strictly freeways. You are still likely to find animals, both living and dead on them. There was a huge carcass of a horse or some kind of cattle on the highway from Agra to Jaipur when we were returning doing over 80 kilometers per hour in the night. If we had run over that obstacle... well, I don't want to imagine that, let alone describe in gory detail. Coming across herds of animals from different types of cattle to goats and sheep to even packs of dogs is still very common on all kinds of Indian roads. Also, it is a real mindfuck when it takes an hour or more to get across 10 kilometers in the city traffic, and once you are out of the city, you cover the same distance in less than 10 minutes!
17. Considering my hectic travel schedule in India, I was not able to see many of my old friends nor go to the home of my favorite aunt. This is something I always managed to do every time I went to India. But not this time.
18. Most Indian websites are still very clunky and unreliable when it comes to making online payments or purchases. Describing all the frustrations and troubles I had with them will take up a whole post in itself. Some examples: a) Most of Indian websites pass control totally away from their own page where you are trying to make a payment or purchase, out to a third-party payment gateway. The idea is that the third-party payment gateway facilitates the process of taking money from your bank account or card, and passes control back to the original website with confirmation of your payment. Sounds okay in theory, but extremely iffy in practice, especially with the slow Internet connection speeds in India. b) Most Indian websites don't accept payment from any standard (VISA or Mastercard) credit card. Instead, they have extremely limiting one-to-one tie-ups with a handful of banks. If you don't have an account with those banks or don't have a credit/debit card from one of those banks, you can't make a purchase on that site! This was true of even sites like BSNL, which is a nationwide wired and wireless phone service provider. Unbelievable, but true!
19. Getting prepaid cellular service turned on for my phone with a 3G data connection was more complicated and frustrating than it should be. This, despite the fact that the prepaid sim card had already been purchased by my uncle before I got to India. If I had to first buy sim card on my own and then get the service turned on, I suspect it would have been even more of a hassle. Half the problem was due to the fact that I was a total foreigner in India (as far as this process was concerned) who did not understand how it all worked. Half the problem was due to the process itself being clunky and unnecessarily complicated. And half the problem was due to the government-operated BSNL employees not being fully knowledgeable about their own products, services and processes. Yes, I know three half problems make 1.5 problems, and that is exactly the point I am making!
20. As I mentioned before, in dollar terms, all the prices in India are extremely cheap. My local travel expenses within India (all transportation, entrance tickets and lodging) came to just 585 US dollars. I could have reduced that amount by half (a full $276) if I did not take a couple of domestic flights in India. But I was traveling a really long distance and it was a choice between two days by train versus half a day by flight. I also saved a lot on hotel expenses by staying with family and friends. I did not count food as a travel expense, because I have to eat regardless of whether I am traveling or not. Moreover, food in most places in India is extremely cheap compared to the US. Note that most tourist attractions in India have a higher entrance ticket price for foreigners (I don't like that policy at all!) and many places also have an additional fee to take in cameras! If you are curious, my air ticket from the US to India was just over $1300 which is an extremely low price for that time of the year. I got lucky with a British Airways sale.
21. Any negatives I mentioned above are small obstacles par for the course in India. The real deal is that it is an amazingly beautiful country with very friendly and helpful people. I feel very nostalgic when I think back on my trip and I miss all the people I met during my travels. Most of the people who really love me and care for me are in India, and I miss them a lot. I miss my two beautiful nieces who are growing up too fast. I can't wait to go back again. And once I go back there, I can't wait to start traveling in India again! Vagabonding is indeed extremely addictive.