India was incredible. It’s so overwhelming in its vastness, yet can be so friendly at a smaller scale.
There is nowhere we have experienced a broader range of moods. The many highs are unforgettably etched in your brain, just next to the pungent lows.
And in our fourth week of a big circuit of southern India, it continued to surprise us. It’s surprising that it works at all. It’s a global blessing that it’s all relatively peaceful, given the religious, cultural, and regional diversity. Let’s really hope this does not change.
It’s also fascinating to see how people have adapted to cope with it’s challenges. Vagueness and bureaucracy are endemic and seem to be the enemy of progress. Yet the dynamic new tech and innovation sectors are amazingly efficient. Two worlds.
One surprise of this visit to me is the fact that so much of the old world and customs still dominate life outside the metro areas. I thought things would have changed a bit more. Municipal services still don’t seem to be strong. Public spaces are not cherished and although cleanliness in the home is paramount, keeping common spaces trash free is still a difficult thing to experience for people used to more proper sanitation (and much more consumption per capita, but just better hidden!).
But as much as I have been intoxicated by the new metros, sights, sounds, and conversations with so many kind and interesting people, I was equally aghast at the state of road transport. It’s hostile, aggressive, dangerous, and classist. The National highways are death traps and have 30% of fatalities despite only representing 2% of the road system. Our last week really highlighted this as we had 3 road transfers in a row to navigate the center and east coasts of Tamil Nadu. In some cases, buses were an option (with additional transfers on each end), but the buses are also dangerous.
So my advice to future travelers is to avoid the roads as much as possible…book your trains early and plan your trip around them. When you do need a car transfer, only do it by daylight and make sure the car is decent and has working seat belts. I can see why people choose a nice driver or transfer van tour option. Of course you can ask your driver to drive slower or take fewer passing risks, but this can tough to overcome with language barriers and the endemic mania that are the norm of Indian roads.
And to be honest, a majority of people in cars were just plain mean, and generally have low respect for pedestrians. It was pretty horrible and stressful, and degraded the quality of life in places such as Ooty. It is unhealthy to body and mind. And as Cheryl likes to note, it has the biggest impact on women, who seem to be the majority of pedestrians walking on roads to conduct their daily duties…. and there are many duties.
It’s a tragedy of the commons. We did see a few feeble attempts to influence behavior with messaging, but unless a massive and systemic change is made, it may only get worse as more cars are added to the mix.
But we are so glad to have made the journey back to India. it’s added to our understanding of its challenges and boosted our appreciation again of the daily struggles of so many. It gives us both hope and fear for two disparate futures.
Thanks to all those who shared their kindness along the way, and we wish you all the best. Keep in touch.
Transportation continues to be a big topic of discussion for us. And a big source of frustration. Our stay in Fort Kochi was nice, the fort and beach area is away from the city itself, and a chill area with big trees, some small streets and lanes to walk, and friendly people.
But like everywhere else, with cars and scooters dashing and honking, people on foot get short shrift. You are the bottom rung of the transportation ladder, and you know it.
We learned very quickly to go out early for our walks. Before breakfast. Not only is the temperature cooler, but there are fewer cars and scooters about, so less wrangling for road space. Notice I say road space since sidewalks are pretty uncommon outside any city center commercial street- and even on some of those streets. When we caught a predawn taxi to the train station we realized the locals got out very early to walk and jog the quieter streets.
The trains are popular since the alternative for many of these destinations is driving. We really try hard to stay off the roads in cars. The driving is tough. Not for non locals I think. And we try even harder to stay off the roads at night, other than short auto rickshaw trips in towns. On this trip we have hired a car and driver for several transfers, and it’s no picnic either. We sit in the back firmly belted in and try not to watch what’s going on as cars and scooters and buses overtake and honk and swerve. We always let our driver know we are in no rush and much more interested in safety over speed.
We were super happy with Rich’s choice of accommodation in Kollam, the Ashtamudi Villas, right on the lake. Even though all we could book was a non AC room we were fine. And we had a lovely neighbor, Karen from Plymouth UK, with whom we went out on tours facilitated by the guys running the lodge.
It was a good time for us to come to India. After my breast reduction surgery we knew I wouldn’t be able to bike or do anything very strenuous for a while, so India was a good fit. I haven’t carried my backpack yet, on transfer days Rich wears his backpack and carries mine, but most transfers are door to door, or train station to taxi to door, so not too much toting for Rich. But, even me, always willing to lean into sloth, I want more activities that will require muscles over motors. We are accustomed to much more active lifestyles.
Stay tuned for more India. As we say to each other, the being places in India is lovely, the getting there is the challenge.
So one thing we are noticing as we travel through parts of Southern India is the clear growth of domestic tourism since our last visit: It’s been refreshing to stay places and not be surrounded solely by European or other “western” tourists, as this makes the travel experience a bit more rewarding.
The rising middle class of India is over 200 million strong and growing, and they are influencing travel and tourism here more than ever. Foreign visits are still below 2019 levels, but domestic tourism and travel continues to grow substantially. So does India really need (or want) foreign visitors? And what happened to many of the business that catered mostly to foreign tourists?
The short answer is that many of them closed and have not reopened. In the Tamil Nadu hill station of Ooty, many of the pre-Covid travelers cafes and restaurants listed in guidebooks and online had closed. And service at the ones that survived suffered serious interruptions. But fret not weary traveller, as they are being replaced by new trendy cafes, restaurants, and other businesses that a western traveller will enjoy, but will need to learn to share with local (and much hipper) Indians.
The modern growth and poverty reduction in India over the past 16 years is a great thing, and classic traveller towns of Asia may be legendary and great fun to meet other travelers, but they are always a curated experience. Plus, modern Indian cities and the rise of tech and related services are just as important as understanding the symbolism of old temples IMO. And modern India is going to have a big influence on the world over the next century with one of the fastest growing economies and large population growth.
And of course you have always been able to meet “real Indians” at lower cost lodging, but often there are too extreme differences in socio-economic factors to have a relatable conversation based on common frames of references. And English is often limited to middle and upper classes or people in the tourism trade. Sure, we cherish our interactions with any local, no matter how brief or limited, but to us, it is also equally fascinating to learn about the lives of other other educated professionals in a very dynamic place.
Or maybe you are lucky enough to have close contacts, business ties, or even family here….that is always the best experience, and you are probably meeting lots of people. But one resounding theme in the South has been how nice everyone is, especially away from the main tourist areas.
So after 4 nights in Mysore, we finally headed to more remote areas near Masinagudi by hired driver/taxi. There are no train options and the vague bus info I could find involved 2 transfers. And with Cheryl still unable to carry her pack and 35c heat and sun… you get the idea. Car transfers here are affordable and often take out massive stress of uncertain buses and rickshaw connections. We’ve learned not to torture ourselves excessively in our second visit to India. It turns out this car trip included a route through the Mudumalai Tiger reserve and was delightful, as we saw two wild elephants up the hill from the car as we passed through beautiful landscape. (FYI- It was about INR5,500 or $US65 for a 2 1/2 hour trip with coffee/tea/bathroom stop…maybe 4,000 rupees if you shop around but we let our hotel arrange and the little sedan and driver was nice.)
We stayed 3 days at the “Jungle Hut” next to the Mudumalai Reserve, which is part of 4 national parks and reserves which make up the Wester Ghat Mountains biosphere. It’s a UNESCO global diversity hotspot (one of 36) so protecting the endangered and endemic species is a priority. We loved the Jungle Hut, with its great guides, food, vibe, and staff engagement.
It also appeared that the area was being managed well, with a balance of needed tourism dollars and protection of the environment. Perhaps a little more regulation of safari jeeps outside the reserve is needed, but it seemed many area residents are directly involved in the local reserves, or at least reap some of the benefits of money coming from tourism into the their villages. (There are 8 smaller villages that are part of Masinagudi). India has done a good job expanding and managing natural reserves and animal counts are increasing for tigers, elephants, leopards, panthers, bears, and other large fauna. But it’s not easy. We also saw serious anti-poaching patrols.
So we sadly left the Jungle Hut once again by car transfer to Ooty,, “Queen of the Hill Stations”. But as we made our way up the 36 marked hairpin curves to Ooty, all I could think was wow, what an amazing Tour de France stage this would make -:).
Oh, but the logistics! And logistics are what often takes a toll on independent travelers in India. Unless you go the 5 star tour route, doing just about anything in India always seems to come with unexpected challenges or complications. (And a 5 star tour does not buy you safe roadways or clean air outside your AC cocoon.)
Being fiercely independent travelers, we love to find our own way, but recognize sometimes a guide or car transport is needed. But in most cases, all could be done by independent travelers if there was more information provided. Traveling in almost any other country has been easier, including recently in Morocco and Turkey (especially Turkey…a joy), as interactions are more straightforward. There are cultural differences that are hard to adapt to, even after weeks or months here. The local tourists do much better I suspect, as there is more comfort with the systems, customs, and still strict class structure.
So as Cheryl likes to say repeatedly when I complain about a challenge here, “Square peg, round hole!” We are clearly more comfortable with predictable mass transit, cycling, and walking. And I am always torn about guides, as appreciate guide roles provide jobs, but so many times, guides in museums or other tourist sights are just a replacement for any form of curation, or often just repeat what you read on Wikipedia. Wildlife guides are essential and a huge benefit.
But in my naive American perspective, it seems that if India made things easier for independent tourists, more would visit, and spend even more money. Right now, many places are just too challenging to deal with to bother with, linger, or explore further.
One positive change from 2006 is the introductions of E-visas, which has increased tourism visits significantly. But that’s only the first step, as there was still a baffling amount of forms to fly to and enter India. We first submitted all our personal and trip information to get a Visa, including photographs. Next was the mandatory info on the airline app, yet we still got caught out at check-in missing the Air Suvidha form, which was added in January for entry from “high risk” countries. We knew (and somewhat understand) the added PCR tests due to China”s surge in cases, but can’t imagine any scenario in all of India where this form will prevent one case of COVID post entry. Most governments have realized the futility of such measures when COVID is all about in country, but it shows action for politicians.
So we have detailed e-visa with photo, the Air Suvida form, and all other COVID docs, and then get to immigration and are directed to a confusing side desk for E-visas….but first, fill out another manual form with the same info. The few (half dozen) foreign Nationals were all confused and then trying to share the agents one pen and understand why a fourth form was needed….then to immigration desk for questioning….where we were going, my job, was I young to be retired? And immigration officers seemed to be baffled by a tourist listing a hotel as address in India. We’re tourists! Cheryl somehow got less of a rigamorale. Maybe it was the purple hair. Maybe, it seemed, he was trying to be a bit playful and curious, but after all the forms, I wasn’t really in joking mood. Plus, you NEVER joke in immigration or customs unless prompted!
Then to customs ( no one there…walked through?). We then managed to get lucky and find the lone ATM inside arrivals that had cash. (Runs out later in the day apparently, so then you are forced to change cash at poor rates) And then to the one SIM card booth where were lucky to be first in line and getting two Vodaphone SIMs which took about 20-25 minutes, including new digital photos. The time was not the staff’s fault, as they had to enter endless info to register us, as apparently SIM cards are tightly controlled here out of security concerns. The SIM cards work fine and were very reasonable cost 1000INR for 28 days with 1.5GB/day plus bonus on weekends. But note that Airtel has a better network, but getting SIMs outside the airport can have additional challenges.
Next we decided to use the official Airport cabs….which, oh boy, had no one waiting (red flag!). We got in and asked about the meter….as I then noticed the official one seemed to be upside down on the floor and he showed me his phone which had a “meter”. Ughh….and no seatbelts. Ok, but at least he was fairly mellow, preferring to straddle two lanes on the highway most of the way to our modest hotel in Indiranagar. The fare was 2100 INR….more than double than fares listed by Ola or Uber, which explains the lack of line and what all the locals were doing waiting outside the terminal. Welcome to India. But the good news is that a metro is being built to the airport! (Which you know we will take.)
I realize to most natives and past visitors to India it feels as if I’m a man waving fist at seagull. Futile. But India could attract more tourists if some things were more user friendly. The above airport process in Taiwan took 1/4 the time and 5% the stress.
Another issue is the train reservation system for the national railway, IRCTC, can be figured out, but it takes a LOT of patience and working out the payment system for international credit cards. The website (App promised for years…) is twitchy with overlays, ads, videos, and pop up windows. Cmon India, this is your national railway…a more streamlined booking platform and App similar to most modern railways and airlines would be great.
As Cheryl noted in our last post, there are plans to modernize and expand railway service, but will it be fast enough to keep up with the explosion of car ownership and discount air travel. These modes are definitely now the preferred way of travel for the middle and upper classes. But at a huge cost to the environment. The car ownership growth here is a time bomb, and already crippling cities, big and small, as well as killing 160,000 people a year.
And although intercity buses fill a big transport need, most run at night only, and the many decent booking apps don’t take foreign credit cards…..still trying to crack this travel challenge with Google/Amazon Pay or PayPal. But you can generally find something the day before or last minute, but it may not be your first choice for time or comfort. But we are lucky, as we can always buy ourselves out of most situations, even if it means an expensive car hire to the next destination. Flying is often an option too, but we have vowed not to fly in country as much as possible.
So if you are still reading this rant, please know that I think India is a truly unique and fascinating place and we are savoring all the experiences as we head through Kerala now. A cultural and social anthropologists dream. A political and global force. An incredible mix of hundreds of cultures and languages that somehow keeps it together as the worlds largest democracy.
But you don’t make it easy India, and maybe that’s what it’s all about. Happy travels!
Rich and I last traveled in India over 16 years ago. He and my friends will attest that I did not have a great time that last trip. As interesting and unique as I found the country, there were things younger me couldn’t get past. The inequality, for women and for those less fortunate. The crowds. The traffic. Never being left alone to enjoy anything in peace. The poverty. It was a lot.
I think many travelers and tourists are overwhelmed on their first trip to India. Why, friends asked, are you going back? Well, I replied, we were only in the north in our last trip and people say that North and South in India are as different as in the US. Our first good chat with a local gentleman at our first dinner in Bengaluru confirmed that. He went to North India once, he said, from his native Bengaluru, and it was so different. Like a different country. And, I’m older now, more mature, lots of grey hair. Less likely to attract negative attention. Ok, so I did have my hair dyed purple before leaving Bangkok which means no grey is showing, and I have bright purple hair. Attention? Yes. But it’s my fault this time.
So, can my older wiser self settle in to enjoy India more than I did 16 years ago? I think so. It helps that Rich is an enthusiastic traveler in addition to being the best travel planner. We both love experiencing a place as independently as possible. Walking and taking transit as much as we can keeps us happy. Our only taxi in Bengaluru was from the airport to our hotel. All other trips were metro and walking.
Our last four hotels have all been within a block of a metro or subway line. Taipei, Taiwan, two different hotels in Bangkok, one above the MRT and one by the SkyTrain, and now Bengaluru, a block from a purple line station of the Metro. Not an accident, just good planning from Rich. We share a pretty healthy dislike of having to rely on taxis. Every car trip added to a city is a bad thing. For the air, for people’s safety, and for noise pollution. In India the noise is mostly of beeping horns, the scooters are quieter here than the motor bikes in Bangkok – thankfully. But the beeping! Incessant.
Since I’m still recovering from breast reduction surgery Rich is carrying both backpacks. Thankfully, the train station connects to a metro stop with a dedicated walkway so for our train ride to Mysore we again avoided a taxi trip. To enter the metro system you have to put your bags through a scanner, and then be wanded by a security guard, men to one side and ladies to the other in a small curtained booth. My first time I actually stopped for the wanding, but my second time I followed the lead of the local in front of me who didn’t even break stride as she passed through the curtains.
Our destination, Mysore, is less friendly to walking trips. For starters it’s hotter here, up to 90f/32c in the afternoon, and sidewalks are not standard. We feel a bit like square pegs in round holes, but we persevere, heading out in the morning to walk to what we can, and taking auto rickshaws back in the heat of the day.
A friend in SF sent us a link to a map of step wells in India (thank you Gisela!), and we took a taxi to this one a bit outside of town. This is a fairly simple stepwell, many are much more ornate. Built to capture water and as temples, construction of these stepwells hit its peak during Muslim rule from the 11th to 16th century – per Wikipedia.
Built in the 8th century this Kalyani, or stepwell, was cleared of garbage and restored in the past few years.
Stepwell visit complete, we had our taxi driver head back towards town and drop us off to wait for the train museum to open. Sitting on a wall in the shade and watching Sunday morning activities was actually quite nice. On our last trip to India I don’t remember being able to sit unmolested by curious or begging locals. Here in Mysore, although there aren’t many tourists back yet, most folks walk by us with only a curious look (Rich is quite tall and I have purple hair, so not unexpected.), a smile, or an offer of an auto rickshaw.
It pains me to be reminded that so much of the history tourists are encouraged to see and celebrate in India is colonial history. The railway has its roots in British rule. From an article by The Wire.IN “Between 1850 and 1910, 94% of Indian broad gauge locomotives were built in Britain and only 2.5 in India. During the Second World War, preconditions for purchases from outside of Britain were relaxed but still the overall balance remained disproportionately tilted in favour of Britain. Thus, prior to independence in 1947, India imported 14,420 locomotives from Britain, built 707 itself and purchased 3,000 from other countries.” However, we were pleased to see what to us are very familiar planning presentations for the ongoing improvements and upgrades to Indian Rail.
Although Mysore requires more auto rickshaw trips we are managing to walk to some destinations in the morning. The zoo. The Mysore Palace – which is the second most visited attraction in India after the Taj Mahal, apparently.
We went back to the palace on foot one morning. The neighborhood across the street from our hotel fascinates us. One thing I have found that I really enjoy when traveling is making eye contact with women, particularly women my age, and exchanging smiles. Sometimes the smile only come from me. Americans smile a lot, and if you ask other cultures we smile for no reason and it’s weird! I always make a special effort when I see women in a Niqab, the veil and face covering which leaves the eyes clear. Five years ago Rich and I were in Indonesia and both struck up independent conversations with a couple (bathroom at a train station), and she was wearing a Niqab. It made me wonder how often women in Niqab are overlooked, or even ignored, by folks who don’t feel comfortable with the idea of a women who veils or covers. In Indonesia we all laughed to see our partner walk out of the restroom chatting with their partner. When I make eye contact with a woman, of any age, and nod, and she nods and smiles back, I feel like I’ve made a connection, however small.
Our walk to the zoo took us through this neighborhood, and our walk to the palace. It was fun to see the children being packed into auto rickshaws for the trip to school. I counted nine children in one rickshaw. Ladies, I assume maids for the houses, were sweeping and watering down front stoops and steps, and drawing elaborate rangoli or korams in rice flour.
You can understand how a simple 15 minute walk to the zoo turned into a tour of its own.
So am I better at travel in India this time? Yes and no. We are more experienced travelers, but India doesn’t really suit our travel style. It’s challenging to be independent travelers here, which is why we see so many tour groups at our hotel being loaded into an AC bus after breakfast. It’s hard to book trains, or figure out local buses, and it’s challenging to walk many places. Rich has been working out in the hotel gym, but since I’m still recovering I can only walk. No yoga or arm workouts yet, so I’m feeling antsy. But the highs of India are indeed high and I’m glad we’re here. I love seeing and learning about new things. Tomorrow we leave Mysore and head to a lodge stay near a nature reserve. It’s not great tiger viewing season, but we can always hope, and the bird watching is supposed to be amazing.