We flew to India on a package tour in January 2014. It was our first time in that country; we hope it won’t be our last. This is the epilogue of the story. Catch up via Part 1 or Part 2 or Part 3 if you need to.
Our trip through three big cities in India was fast and furious. So far we’ve blogged about the tourism destinations, but not a lot about the travel package itself, or the people we met, or life happening around us there.
We’d heard lots of neat stuff about taking the train and know people who’ve backpacked around India, but…to be honest, that didn’t really appeal. We knew we wanted to visit, but weren’t really sure where to start, or what to expect in terms of accommodations and transportation, so when we saw a package tour available which covered several big-name destinations, we jumped on it. The price was steeper up front than we normally pay for a week of vacation, and I’m sure we could have arranged many of the activities ourselves, but…
Meh. We jumped at the chance to let someone else do the hotel reservations, admissions to attractions, transportation, and many of the meals. Along with that convenience came a few activities we wouldn’t have chosen for ourselves, however, and a “cooking class” was mentioned in the description we bought, which never materialized. As fans of cooking and fans of Indian cuisine, that omission left a bitter taste in our mouths.
We stayed in nice places.
- New Delhi Holiday Inn Mayur Vihar Noida
- Trident Agra
- Trident Jaipur
- Crowne Plaza Gurgaon
The rooms at the first and last one were the best of the bunch — modern and stylish. But the food at the Trident Agra was far and away the best (and the Trident Jaipur was no slouch either) quality and value. We particularly liked the set up and selection and staff at the Trident Agra: the head chef made us personal recommendations after we told him what we like (almost everything) to try local and regional specialties you’d probably never discover on your own.
The Bollywood Stuff
Included in our package were two theatrical performances: one in Agra, romanticizing the construction of the Taj Mahal, and another in Gurgaon, which was definitely much weirder. It was a kind of “Bye Bye Birdie” meets “The Wonder Years” if it had been set in South Asia. Lots of cultural references were lost on us there. It didn’t help that in both cases the performances were all in Hindi (not a big surprise) but with the spoken dialog piped in our ears in English through crappy radio-connected headphones. The signal strength, battery power and audio quality was just terrible at both theaters, rendering any attempt to absorb the details close to pointless.
Maybe we should have seen this coming, especially after our Antalya vacation package in Turkey over Christmas 2009. The tour description we read mentioned trips to “local markets” and “handicraft” centers. We didn’t figure out until we arrived at one that this was code for the hard-sell high-end merchandise environment. To be fair, we didn’t feel overly pressured, and even made some purchases and collected some native Hindu sculpture ideas for a friend of ours at her request. But it still was kind of a disappointment to be dropped off in the care of the jeweler, purveyor of carpets and tapestries, Hindu sculptures, or textiles. Sort of like, “Oh. So that’s what’s happening here…” as the realization sets in that we’re part of someone else’s negotiations. We saw beautiful stuff — particularly the marble work — but we wouldn’t have chosen to spend our time and money that way. We bought a few items, but only because we wanted to, but only after someone took us there. So it wasn’t terrible.
The Tour Agency
The assistant manager of the office contacted us before our trip via email and gave us some arrival email information and emergency contact numbers for his company’s offices and the hotels along the way. He was there waiting for us at the airport with our names on a sign (that was a neat feeling), gave us an overview of the whole itinerary, and introduced us to our driver.
This guy was great. He was dedicated to us 24 hours a day for the whole length of our trip, whenever we were awake but not in the care of a tour guide. He coordinated the changes in schedule, weather and traffic, and handled all the other bumps, figurative and literal, in the road between Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. He was always exactly where and when he said he’d be when handing us over or dropping us off with the tour guides. Towards the end of the trip he gathered up the courage to ask me how old I am. “10 years younger, and so much white in your beard!” he joked.
She was our favorite guide. She gave us so much insight into the subtler aspects of ancient and modern local culture. She loved to talk, and was surprised that knew as much as we did (admittedly: not much, but we were able to retrieve a few nuggets when she quizzed us). Her English was easily the best of the bunch, in terms of vocabulary and our ease in understanding her. We loved that she took us to her family’s favorite restaurant in Dehli for Chana Masala when I asked for it at lunch and it wasn’t on offer, and was perfectly willing to answer our honest questions about her own family: arranged marriages, relationships between in-laws, regional animosities, and other potentially very personal stuff.
A very polite young man was our guide in Agra. He was passionate about the history and architecture, and that was obvious, but we felt bad for him, because he was obviously not feeling well, and still trying hard to give an excellent tour. At one point during an explanation of the resources put into the construction of the Taj Mahal, he burped a couple times and may have even barfed in his mouth a little bit. I offered him my still-sealed bottle of water, and he seemed embarrassed to take it. I hoped I had done the right thing, from an etiquette perspective.
Our guide in Jaipur seemed like he didn’t really want to be there, or had a strict schedule to keep (as opposed to Mrs. Dehli, who explained that IST really stood for “Indian Stretchable Time”). In fact, almost everything about him seemed kind of strict, with a very stiff posture, clean, close haircut and an impeccably trimmed mustache. He guided us through the forts and palaces, and a stroll along one of the main drags in Jaipur where I bought some tea, but he didn’t seem very interested in the details. One exception to that: he sort of came alive, briefly, at Jai Singh’s observatory while he demonstrated the accuracy of the sundial.
I’m not sure how much of it came through our photographs. Our guides and the package definition were great for acquainting the visiting tourist with the attractions. Clearly there is a rich historical cultural tradition, and plenty of vibrant colors to catch your eye, despite the appalling polution, but socio-politically, there is a lot more going on than we had time to explore. Cows and pigs munching on garbage on the side of the road are a sad sight, but moreso is the heartbreaking poverty of the beggars and sellers of trinkets. Particularly the charming six-year-old salesman at 9:00 a.m. on a weekday, as we walked up from the bus parking towards the Fatehpur Sikri was a bittersweet reminder of how much potential India as the planet’s largest democracy has, and how much farther they have to go on the road out of the Thirld World.