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“You should LOWER your expectations.” So said Anil, our Tour Leader during his introductory meeting on our first day in India. Oh dear, I thought – how low should they go?
Jane and I knew all about low expectations. A few years previously we had paid a guide $50US each to walk with him through a Costa Rican cloud forest (no clouds that day) where we were expected to marvel at a plant that had parachute seeds that were indistinguishable from those of the common British dandelion. When occasionally we heard the cry of a bird, the guide would leaf through his Birds of Costa Rica book and point to a drawing of a bird that he said had made that sound. Surely, we were allowed to expect a little better than that?
As it turned out, we got everything that the Exodus trip notes said. Have a read of them – they’re pretty good. We had prepared ourselves for the exotic, but some things were rather more unusual than we could have guessed. As our coach moved slowly through the traffic in Jaipur we saw an Indian man stark bullock naked (I kid you not) striding purposefully along a crowded street in broad daylight hardly drawing a second glance from any of the locals. We were all too stunned to grab our cameras before the coach turned a corner and we lost sight of him. What we had not realised was that the locals would also consider us exotic.
To some extent, I could understand the interest in the member of our group who had impressive dreadlocks that would have made Bob Marley green with envy. However, the blond girls in the group found out how Angelina Jolie must feel as they were openly stared at, blatantly photographed, and asked to pose with the locals for group shots. They drew even more attention in the more rural areas, and those less conservatively dressed wished they had covered up more. We also found that the concept of personal space is not well understood in India. While we were standing chatting on the railway station platform in Agra, a couple of men came and stood right next to us for no other reason than to listen to our conversation. They didn’t join in, just listened – weird!
Nothing prepared me for the traffic. When I learned to drive there was a lot of emphasis on “mirror, signal manoeuvre.” I may be showing my age, but I think that is still the case in Britain. When an Indian gets in a vehicle the first thing he must do is to either turn in or even completely remove the external mirrors. This is so that he can squeeze through even smaller gaps. In congested areas, lane markings are ignored. A three lane highway will have at least four trucks abreast with a couple of motorbikes squeezing in between them. No-one can see what is behind them so they rely on other drivers sounding their horns to warn of their approach. It is completely normal to drive in the way that is most convenient, and if that includes travelling the wrong way on a dual carriageway, or the wrong way around a roundabout, so be it.
Tuk-tuk drivers are especially mental. They are naturally competitive and will swerve around the narrow crowded streets, only just avoiding other vehicles, pedestrians, cows, piles of rubbish etc. If members of our group were in two tuk-tuks they would race each other, and the inducement of an additional 50 rupees to the winner would bring out the dirty tricks. One driver even reached under the dashboard while hurtling along and switched to a different sounding horn so that the other driver would not know that his rival was right behind him!
One thing to always remember in India is that the price of everything is negotiable. Even the exchange rate offered in a hotel can be improved just by asking for a couple of rupees more. However, there is no point haggling the price of something down to 35 rupees if the smallest you have is a 50 rupee note as the vendor will never have change, and you end up paying 50 rupees anyway!
So how low should your expectations of this adventure be? Is Delhi Belly inevitable? Will the mosquitoes give you Dengue Fever? Will all your possessions be stolen from you as you sleep on the train? The answers, if you take normal precautions, unsurprisingly are No, No, and No. Although I defy any Westerner to suddenly start eating two and three curries a day every day for ten days and not notice a change to his normal routine. You need not be bitten if you cover up before dusk and use a repellent with a high level of deet. Your possessions will be safe if you take the same care of them as you would expect to do in the UK.
But don’t expect your experience to be as good as ours, because ours was brilliant. One recommendation is to go off-piste for an afternoon at the Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra. Our original intention was to have afternoon tea there, but once on the terrace overlooking the swimming pool and with great views of the Taj Mahal we were side-tracked by the cocktail menu. The only tea to pass our lips was Long Island Iced Tea – and the rest is history!
Oh, and we saw tigers, four of them…
Jane and David Fellingham