June 20, 2010


Although I was born in India, we moved to Canada when I was two. I first visited during the summer of 1972 and then in December 2009. This gives me the perspective of a tourist.

There's lots to see but you need connections to get things done. Your senses are overwhelmed with the sights, smells and sounds. You know you're far from home.

Growing up, India was perceived as poor and backwards. Coming from there was not an asset. How things change. Now India is exotic. The food is a delicacy. The culture is intriguing. Bollywood has fans worldwide.


We experienced plenty during our 27 day trip
  • difficulty breathing in heavily polluted New Delhi: felt like inhaling smoke from a forest fire or poorly vented fireplace
  • the kidnapping of a 4 year old family member on the way back from school: ended the same day after payment of a hefty ransom
  • a religious mob in Agra (home of the Taj Mahal): the scariest part of the trip since we could see how easily the crowd could be incited to violence
  • a metal staple in spinach (palak paneer) at a five star resort: no wonder kids hate spinach
  • terrorists controlling the nearby villages: we stayed clear
  • villagers setup illegal tollbooths on some smaller highways: we paid
  • ordered coffee in an officer's canteen … waited … waited … and got tea: we didn't notice immediately
You've got to be vigilant in the smallest matters. Once our hosts discovered a newly-delivered tank of cooking fuel was underweight. The replacement had the correct weight, but contained some water. Little misadventures like this drain your mental energy. Who can you trust? What can you trust?


We booked all our flights to, from and inside India from home on the Internet directly with the airlines. I setup mobile alerts by email and printed etickets to take with us.

Upon arrival, we took two days to recover from the jet lag. On the flight, I tried to set my biological clock to India time by eating and sleeping as if I were there. This helped.

We stayed with relatives nearly the whole time. This gave us security but limited our flexibility since we didn't control our schedule. We saw much less than we normally would see on vacation because so much time went to waiting for others. If you take a package tour, you'll have even less control of your schedule and even less opportunity to see the real country.


In Canada and the US, we do almost everything ourselves from cooking to cleaning to cutting the grass to minor home repairs to pumping gasoline. In India, you get a much higher level of service. The places we stayed had servants for cooking, cleaning, serving and washing the car. If your cell phone or TV remote is more than an arm's length away, call a servant.

This seems like heaven but isn't. The servants rarely took initiative. They did what they were told … slowly. What's the point of rushing and getting new assignments? It's getting tough to hire good servants since the booming economy has created more desirable opportunities.

Since the servants weren't empowered, they required constant supervision. This created extra work and aggravation for the employers. Here, we focus on saving time. We use machines for washing dishes, washing clothes and drying clothes. We have car washes. We get ready-cut vegetables (perhaps frozen). We buy grated cheese. We get consistent results.

With servants, it's easy for the employers to become lazy. That creates health issues.

Modern Amenities

The places we went had hot water and western style toilets. We traveled in vehicles with air conditioning, which helped filter the polluted air in big cities.

You'll need patience. Life moves at a slower pace. Getting my Blackberry activated took a couple of weeks, required co-signing plus a photo of a host, and a home visit to verify the address. This scrutiny is an anti-terrorism initiative that's easily overcome by buying a black market phone.

There's such a contrast between the rich and the poor. Because of the vast population, human life has little value. If you have so little, why not take with force? Daytime kidnappings take place but paying the ransom does not guarantee a safe return. The kidnappers rarely get caught, which may suggest police involvement.


Without connections and generous tipping, you'll waste lots of time.

We visited the Taj Mahal on my wife's birthday. The lines were hours long but we skipped them because our host had connections. We even got a wonderful VIP tour. Rather than drudgery, the day became a wonderful memory. I'm not sure how we'll top it this year.


There's concern about terrorism but the security measures aren't consistently applied. An outdoor shopping plaza had airport-style metal detectors. To avoid the line, shoppers walked through an unmonitored gate for vehicles. There were police nearby but they were talking to each other.

At a nice restaurant, the guard directed us to bypass the metal detector. Why bother having it?
In a smaller city with known terrorists nearby, the police checked vehicles before letting them cross a bridge to the rebel stronghold. Since the checks weren't done 24/7, bad elements could easily wait until the police were off-duty.

Three Precautions

Mind your food. We were very careful about what we ate. We drank water that was boiled or came from freshly-opened bottles. We ate at better quality places and skipped uncooked food. We used hand sanitizer often. We weren't sick for even a day. When I went in 1972, I was sick most of the vacation and that was a reason I wasn't eager to return.

Avoid the heat. We travelled in December when the weather is cooler and to take advantage of school holidays. In New Delhi, night temperatures dropped to 10C but this felt much colder because the place we stayed was made of stone, unheated and not well insulated. However, in Bhubaneswar, Orissa the daytime temperatures exceeded 35C. That was hotter than the deserts in Rajasthan (my birthplace) further north.

Disguise yourself. Years ago, rental cars in Florida had stickers for the rental agency. After thieves targeted tourists, this practice stopped. India has special white vehicles marked for tourists (generally Toyota minivans). Why make yourself a visible target? We travelled in unmarked vehicles. Even then, roadside beggars targeted us.

If you're a seasoned traveller, India is easy to visit. There's plenty to see. You can take precautions to protect yourself but you don't feel entirely safe --- which is very much like travelling anywhere.


Podcast Episode 71 (8:07)

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