April 30, 2007

My thoughts on India

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It's been more than 2 weeks since I came back from my India trip. I must say that my first trip to India left a deep impression on me. These are my observations:
  • India is a beautiful country with lots of rich history and culture, which leaves a string of wonderful monuments and other places to visit. The Taj Mahal aside, all the monuments around Agra and Delhi were just amazing bits of history that I never had exposure to before.  Photos from my trip can be seen here.
  • Everything you ever heard about India is true. All the horror stories about how dirty it is, the crowd/traffic, the beggars/vendors/kids who hound after you...we saw it all. Everywhere we went, we were hounded by people who knocked on the windows of the car, trying to ask for money or sell us something. Mothers would hold their kids and ask us for money. We felt for these people...but I ignored them and did not offer anything, because I knew that the moment we responded, there would be 30 people coming our way and we would never see the end of it.
  • India really is as dirty and filthy as all your friends have told you. A main reason for this is the fact that bulls and cows roam the streets, and you end up with dung just everywhere. People don't seem to bother to clean them up. Personal hygiene also plays a contributing factor, as adults as well as children find it perfectly acceptable to relieve themselves on the streets.
  • I have never been so paranoid about food/drink and cleanliness when traveling anywhere else in the world, not even China and other places in SE Asia. Most of the days we brushed our teeth with mineral water, never ate anything outside the 5-star hotels we stayed in (except for 2 meals: 1 meal at McDonalds in Agra, and the other on Jet Airways), and carried wet wipes and waterless alcoholic cleaning gel everywhere. In spite of all this, I still got sick! I had food poisoning the day I ate the airplane food from Varanasi to Delhi on Jet Airways, but fortunately the effects were gone by the next evening.
  • India is expensive for foreign tourists, because going expensive is the only way to insulate yourself from the "real India" with all the filth and beggars. Case in point: Why are so many people willing to pay USD 600/night for the Oberoi Amarvilas? Does the view of Taj Mahal from your room justify the USD 500/night difference from the next best option? Well, for people who can afford it, it is the only game in town for now. The next best option, the Mughal Sheraton, cost around USD 100/night but has a reputation for being a bit old and run down, with the musty smell that puts people off. So the choice is simple.
But despite all the negative comments I may have had, I would want to go back to India and visit the Rajastani cities of Jaipur, Jodphur and Udaipur. I found that, much like myself for the last 10 years, India is not on the radar screen for many people I have spoken to recently. Like me, they stayed away due to all the horror stories they have heard. But I would encourage people to go to this beautiful country. There is a way to do India in a more "sterilized" fashion with 5-star hotels and traveling by clean hotel cars. You can do this with your first trip to India, like we did, to dip your toes in the water. I think people would enjoy it.

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