March 27, 2018 — When we decided to visit India, one of the places on both of our bucket lists, my wife and I got one of two very opposite reactions. The first was incredulous, as in “why would you want to visit a place like that?” The second was either, “I have always wanted to go there”, or “I can’t wait to go back”.
One reason we wanted to visit India came from what we heard from fellow travelers. They spoke of the strange and awesome sights, the friendly people so different from us, and the wonderful food. For my wife, an avid reader captivated by the many best selling novels with Indian themes, there was a desire to see the country described in those stories. Those books included the likes of “the Sleeping Dictionary” (see end for suggested reading list).
Before you go
Because it is so different and an emerging third world country, visiting India requires more preparation than typical destinations like Europe or Australia.
– You’ll need a visa to visit India. The e-visa is the way to go – the form is complicated but you can apply online and your tour company will probably help you with it (there is a fee).
– Most travelers are not experienced or adventurous enough to travel on their own in this country. You would be better off going with a reputable tour company. Tauk and Geo-X are two great high end outfits. Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) and many other companies offer a range of more affordable options. You could also go by yourself and hire local guides in the cities you visit. In our opinion a guide offers valuable insight you cannot get unless you are a dedicated researcher on your own.
What to see
The possibilities are endless in a country as big and with the ancient cultural history of India. You will find the people are incredibly friendly, eager to talk with you, even in large cities. We had lots of curious Indians who wanted to take pictures of us!
Some of the highlights of our trip, yours will be different!
– An afternoon walk through a small village that rarely gets foreign visitors. As we walked its dusty streets dodging cows, water buffalo, and sleeping dogs, all of the village children followed us. A group of women approached and sang a welcome song to us.
– Joining the celebration of the Holi Festival in a small village. The festival of the harvest and color is one of the biggest holidays of the year, and everyone is in a festive mood.
– Watched mother and daughter tigers cross 20 feet in front our Safari Jeep in Rathambor.
– Were awed by the majestic Taj Mahal at dawn and dusk. Not a temple, it is a marble tribute to a departed wife.
– Visited many ancient marble and sandstone temples in towns and the countryside. Many of these Hindu, Buddhist, Jainist, and Muslim temples or mosques are exquisitely preserved and still in use.
– Took a dawn and dusk ride on the Ganges as pilgrims bathed, washed clothes, and cremated their loved ones in funeral pyres along the banks
– Enjoyed the dazzlingly beautiful colors on the clothes worn by Indian women. Ladies are the peacocks in this society, even when they are working in the fields. By comparison our group in safari duds and cargo pants looked positively dowdy.
– Bought more handcrafts (mostly textiles) than on any trip we ever took: brocade table runners, napkins, scarves, kids clothes, and even a rug. All were beautiful and inexpensive.
– Visiting The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel near Jaipur. The former palace showcased in the movie is in fabulous shape. It looks like it would be great place to live, if it were a retirement community!
Here are the cities we visited on our tour with Geo-X, all of which were within short plane rides from New Delhi:
Delhi (New and old)
New Delhi, which has its origins with the British Empire, has broad boulevards and impressive government buildings. Old Delhi features the Red Fort and the enormous Jama Masjid Mosque, both of which date from the centuries-long rule of the invading Moghals. Took a rickshaw ride through the Chandni Chowk, a rabbit warren of lanes in one of India’s oldest and most crowded bazaars.
Built around beautiful Lake Pichola, here you can explore old castles and take a boat ride and take in the beautiful Jag Mandir, a castle on an island.
Our visit coincided with the colorful harvest festival of Holi. On our morning walk through the village friendly little kids in the neighborhoods decorated us with flower-based pigments on our faces and on the white PJs we we all given to wear. Leopards live in the stone mountains above the town – with a guide you have a good chance of seeing one.
Jaipur, the Pink City
This old walled city in pink sandstone is a center of commerce. Tiny little shops in the Johari bazaar abound with beautiful textiles, spices, and every imaginable type of product. People and honking vehicles of every description crowd every open space. Jai Singh II’s astronomical park is preserved in the midst of this; its gigantic sundials and other astronomical instruments were cutting edge on the 1700s.
Home to the Taj Mahal, perhaps the most beautiful structure in the world. Seen at dawn and dusk (we did both), it is breathtaking.
This is the holiest of the 7 cities and the birthplace of Buddhism. Pilgrims absolutely jam the streets as they bring offerings to Buddha. They come to bathe in the river for forgiveness and to cremate their loved ones in preparation for their next incarnation. Every night there is a ceremony to put the River to sleep. Sarnath is a World Heritage Monument where Buddha lived and gave his first sermon.
Home to the Ranthambhore National Park that protects India’s wild tigers. Naturalists take you out in jeeps at dawn and dusk to see monkeys, deer, crocodiles, eagles, and above all the top predators – Bengal Tigers.
– We knew we would see poverty, dirt, smells, and persistent beggars and hawkers; there was plenty enough of that to go around
– The enormous contrast between the fabulous hotels we stayed in and the poverty that so much of the population lives in
– Long way to go with few non-stop flights from the US. With a stop in Europe or the Mideast, it takes at least 24 hours to get here.
– This is an expensive trip.
Retirement in India
Most Americans or Europeans wouldn’t even consider retiring to India. Although you might be able to get a visa to live here part of the year or possibly a permanent residency, the living experience is too alien for westerners. The exception is for Indian-Americans, who might very well relish a return to their native country. There are places for well off expats to live, and those include elegant high rise apartments as well as gated properties modeled after American developments.
More travel tips
– You can change dollars to rupees at your hotel. ATMs are scarce, so typically you need to bring cash or credit card (alert the bank that you are traveling here so you don’t get shut off)
– Delhi belly (very upset tummy) is legendary for those who are incautious. You need to be vigilant about hygiene and food. Do not drink tap water anywhere, even a 4 star hotel. It might be ok but not worth the risk. Brush teeth with bottled water. Don’t eat street food or any fruit or vegetable that hasn’t been cooked. Fruits with peels are ok if you wash and peel yourself .
– Do not attempt to drive here. Traffic is completely chaotic. Get a driver or use public transit. Look right when you cross the street and go with the flow!
– English is spoken everywhere, no problem there.
What to bring
– Women should bring clothing that provides plenty of coverage, as revealing attire is not appropriate. – Men do not wear shorts, even though it is hot.
– Bring long sleeves and a sun hat
– Rain is rare most of the year, but bring a jacket because evenings are cool
– Your guide will provide necessary attire like a robe or socks if required at a temple
– Medications for diarrhea are essential – pepto, Imodium, Cipro (prescription required). Also bring Sudafed or cold medicine
– Sunscreen, insect repellent, and hand sanitizer (wipes and/or spray)
When to go and how to get around
The monsoon months (July – September) are not a good time to visit – it is too wet. India is a big and varied country. Like the USA, it is impossible to see everything in a short time. From Delhi you can hire a driver or take a train to some locations, but to see other cities you would be better off flying, using New Delhi as your hub. Airlines like Jet Air are reliable and inexpensive.
At the beginning of this piece we mentioned the two very different reactions people had to our trip – horror or some form of envy. So where did we end up on that continuum? We both loved the trip – it was so beautiful, exciting and stimulating to see a country so different from what we are used to. Would we go back – probably not. That wouldn’t be because there aren’t so many more great places, new and old, to visit – but more because we have other bucket list trips we have to see first. That list isn’t complete, but an African safari, Machu Picchu, New Zealand, Scandinavia, and Portugal are definitely contenders.
Does any of this make you eager to visit India? What is on your bucket list of travel destinations? What was the trip of your lifetime? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below.
Not everyone can or even wants to visit India. But you can still read about it, and watch movies too!
Beyond the Beautiful Forever by Katherine Boo
Jumpha Lahiri (anything)
The Sleeping Dictionary
Gandhi: His Life and Message – Louis Fischer
More bucket list trips
Travel Is a Dream- Losing Your Passport Is a Nightmare
A Trip to Australia
The Galapagos Bucket List
The Best Bucket Road Trips for Baby Boomers
Bagging the National Parks
Antartica Bucket List Trip