“I’ll carry your bags?”
Since I started writing about my trips to India, the most common response has been “Could I come on your next trip?”
Well…no. Not unless you’re one of the people I shared apartments with four decades ago. (They were big apartments, and friendly roommates, so that number is considerably larger than you might think, but it is a finite one.)
For the rest of you, I thought I’d pass along a few tips for planning your own India adventures.
Always travel with people you have known for a loooooong time, preferably at least one of whom is also a native of the country you’re visiting. (I’d recommend a person who has known you for multiple decades, and seen you in your underwear.) Bonus points if they speak some of India’s local languages in addition to English (Hindi, of course, plus an assortment of the many regional languages each spoken by over 25 million Indians—Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Odia, Punjabi).
Yes, there will usually be someone around who speaks some English, but it won’t necessarily be the same English you speak. For example, if you want a cold one in Rajasthan, you may be offered “child beer”. Or when you’re looking for a light meal in Gujarat at 6:00PM, it may be called “breakfast”. Small treats might be called “snakes” on your menu, and the place your suitcase disappeared to in the back of the taxi is the “dickie”. Of course, there won’t be a dickie in your auto, because that is a three-wheeled motor rickshaw. And in Jaipur, you may be offered a ride in a helicopter, only to be led to a bicycle-powered rickshaw.
[Public service announcement c/o my friend at Limp Cabbage and Soggy Chips. If you order “snakes” from the menu in Gujarat, you will not be served some form of elongated, limbless, carnivorous reptiles of the suborder Serpentes. It’s good to know that in advance, or you may find yourself, as I did once in Texas, faced with an entree which did NOT, for the record, taste anything remotely like chicken… So the takeaway here is: snakes on a menu in India? Safe. Snakes on a menu in Texas? Not so much.]
We’ve stayed in an incredible assortment of places, from palaces to tents. Here is my personal star system:
- 0-stars: no western toilet. Chubby foreign lady tourists just do not have the physical squatting ability needed to succeed here…
- 1-4 stars: No matter what they tell you, still boil that water. (Although in 2+ star hotels, they’ll put it in bottles and insist it’s ‘filtered’, I have the in-patient bracelet from the Don Bosco Hospital—and the PTSD—that says it’s NOT.)
5+ stars: As a rule of thumb, I’d say this is the great divider: The Bucket (and the scoop).
On the recommendation of one of Jaya’s friends, we spent a few days in a government-run tourist hotel outside the temple complex in Hampi (Karnatica, India). She told us it was a “basic” 3-star hotel so our expectations were not high. But we’d been on an overnight train, survived a death-match among auto-rickshaw drivers competing for our business, and arrived at our hotel begging for early morning check-in.
We couldn’t believe it when the smiling (barefoot) porter showed us to a cool blue-green veranda with tile floors, sheltered under trees and jute canopies. Coffee was produced in miniature cups that some doll’s tea-party was probably still missing.
When the room was ready, our porter led us down plant-shaded outdoor corridors to a room furnished with varnished art-deco furniture. That’s when our hotel routine usually starts, as we put in our orders for a third multiple of everything—extra glass, teacup, tea, coffee, soap, shampoo, etc… This hotel was just a bit more of a challenge than some.
Towels? “Madam, towels are on order. Still at laundry.”**
**(Since we’d seen all the laundry ladies working down at the waterfront on the way in, this wasn’t a surprise.)
Extra bed? “On order, Madam.” With a swoop, the room’s two beds were shoved together, a mattress spread on the floor, and a reminder issued that bedding was, of course, “On order.” As were cups, soap, water glasses…
When they left, we took inventory. No toilet paper. No bottled water for us to boil…and no kettle to boil it in. Jaya picked up the phone to call the desk. No dial-tone either.
The friendly front desk staff were heartbroken. The phone repair was “on order” but a kettle was handed over (we suspected it was their office kettle), and the rest promised. Sure enough, by the time we’d spent the day in an orgy of Hampi’s antiquities, temples, art, and seriously good food, our room was complete except for the repaired phone which, we suspect, has been “on order” for some months. Possibly forever.
Next morning, we left for another day of touring ancient monuments, congratulating ourselves that our room was set to our satisfaction and we really have the hang of this travel stuff. We returned that afternoon to find everything was gone. Even the lovely-smelling little local soaps had been removed from the bathroom, leaving only the somewhat mysteriously placed mothballs in sink and shower drains.
Since the phone was still “on order”, Janine headed for the front desk. I decided to follow her and help carry things. Instead, I found her leading a parade. The staff had been devastated to hear that things were again missing, and insisted on carrying each item for her. Everyone wanted to help, so there were separate people lined up to provide water, towels, soap, and the all-important toilet paper.
And that’s the difference between Indian hotels at almost any star-level and the fancy corporate places catering to Western tourists—old buildings, friendly people, quirky settings, and a level of service that blows past professional in favor of sincerely friendly.
I think everyone should get a chance to spend at least one night in the care of Hotel Mayura Bhuvaneshwari Kamalapur (Hampi, Karnataka). Your phone will probably still be “on order”, there may be a mothball pristinely centered in the sink drain, and you might find yourself ordering “snakes” when you get hungry, but your friendly service will be waiting for you.
For those I didn’t meet in their underwear 40+ years back, our new book Please Don’t Ask for Extra Glasses is loaded with tips on everything from packing to lodging to camel racing. Read it and plan your own India adventures!