Travellers Peter and Karin talk about their recent India tour and why opinions are so divided on India.
Peter and Karin travelled on our 17-day Iconic India small group tour.
What type of travellers are you?
We’re not budget travellers. Adventurous is not the right word, but we like to go to interesting places we haven’t been to before. We like culture, food and doing a variety of things like going for walks. Nothing too strenuous but we don’t want to spend all our time at a resort.
What made you want to go to India?
You always talk about travel when you’re travelling with other people and where they have been and what they have done. When we were in Vietnam I said to (Insider Journeys Western tour leader) Eric “You’ve travelled quite a bit, but if you could go anywhere you want on the planet, but it has to be somewhere you’ve been before, where would you go?” and without any hesitation he said “India”. That was in 1998, so that kind of planted the seed. So we’d been talking about India for a long long time, it’s been on our radar for an absolute age.
About 18 months ago Australian Geographic hosted a talk on travel in India and Eric spoke very highly of India and I guess we regard what Eric says very highly so that’s what kept it on the radar for us. He said “If you don’t go now, you’re never going to go.”
We were talking to friends and they said “let’s all go to India” so that’s how the trip sort of came up. I thought well there’s only one company I’m going with - and I’m not just saying that! Insider Journeys was really the only option we looked at, but we did look at other itineraries to work out where we wanted to go. By that time the group kind of fell apart, for one reason or another. I was already into the planning stage and Peter looked at it and said “that looks really good, I don’t care if the others don’t come I think we should go on our own.” So we went ahead. We started talking about that trip in July August last year and we went in February.
Peter at a children's refuge in India
What did you expect India to be like before you went?
A lot of our friends have been to India and there has been a divide between people who absolutely love India and get India, and people who think “I never want to go back there again” so I was a little bit wary. One person in particular wrote an email to another friend whilst he was in India about how much he hated it, but it was so funny that it actually spurred us on to go because I thought, “well if he can cope, I can cope.” We got some really good advice from friends that have been, both friends that really liked it and friends that didn’t like it, and I think you just go and you are aware that there going to be things that are confronting and full on but I have to say that I think we really did prepare well.
In terms of poverty and touts and people hassling you, I actually found the Indians to be really polite and I was expecting much much worse. To be honest there was never a threatening situation, it was always really pleasant; the exchanges we had with the local people, and nobody was pushy. You always had touts of course, but you just say “no” and they persist because that is how they make their living and you just sort of say “please no, I’m not interested” and they go away and hassle somebody else.
When we travel we like to walk a lot, and most everywhere we’ve been, that’s been possible. It’s not possible in India; you miss so much when you are in a car or on a bus, so that was little bit disappointing. It’s not just the traffic chaos, you’re constantly looking down at where you are stepping so it’s kind of draining. That’s the downside to India, but having said that there are so many other things that are great about India I would let that stop anybody going.
I guess the surprises were that we had some really fantastic times including places like Varanasi which was just amazing and it was incredibly well organised. We got driven to the outskirts of the city on the bus and then the rickshaws were all waiting, you don’t have to hassle or negotiate with the rickshaw driver. They know where they are going so you are not going to be taken for a ride throughout all of south-eastern India, they take you near to the Ghat area, which is quite busy and crowded and then we just walked through in single file through all the writhing mass of humanity and chaos and we go down to the water and it was just a really enjoyable experience. We had a fabulous night and a number of people on the trip said “If the rest of the trips a dud it doesn’t matter it’s just been an amazing experience, it’s been worth it just for this.”
Ghats along The Ganges River in Varanasi
If we were on our own that would have been a terrifying experience, quite intimidating, basically a full frontal assault on all your senses. The people that hate India, they tend to be the independent traveller that will insist on getting around on their own and that’s fine if you’ve got a lot of time, but we didn’t have the luxury of that time so this was the only option for us to see India and to enjoy it.
What makes travelling in India different to travelling in other destinations?
You really do need a local guide because of the language issues, maybe in Europe you can get around by yourself, but in India it was so much easier having someone to help you.
When we were in Kolkata, we had a private guide and a driver. One night we dropped the guide off and the driver took us back to the hotel. He spoke virtually no English but he knew the way back to the hotel so that was fine. On the way to the hotel we pulled up at the lights with and this incredibly well-dressed, beautiful woman came up to Peter’s side and tapped on the window with an open hand. I thought, she can’t be begging, she just looked too good, it just didn’t look right. We asked the driver “what does she want?” but he didn’t quite understand or didn’t know what to say. I thought that was really weird. The next day when the guide came to pick us up I told him what happened. I said “Was it a prostitute that was knocking on the window?” He became really uncomfortable so I said, “look it’s ok, we live in a place called St. Kilda and that’s got lots of prostitutes and we see it all the time”. Then he relaxed and said “No, actually you saw a lady-boy”. He told us it is good luck to give them money and we all had a bit of a laugh about it. That afternoon we saw another lady-boy, we were all trying to get our money out and we got a photo. Our guide said “It will bring you good luck; you’ll be upgraded to the presidential suite at the Taj”. That didn’t happen I might add. Without the guide there that spoke English we wouldn’t have understood that and we would have missed that opportunity.
The streets of Kolkata
If you could recommend one place you visited or thing you did, what would it be?
Varanasi was a highlight and also the game park, Bandhavgarh. That was excellent because it was unexpected. I didn’t want to leave that place. It was a great break, something quite different so it was really great and the two hotels, the one in Varanasi and the one where the temples were in Khajuraho, were both pretty good. We really enjoyed the temples, we’ve travelled quite a bit through Southeast Asia and I’ve got to say, those temples were some of the best-preserved temples we’ve seen. We’ve been to Cambodia and Angkor Wat and quite a few places in Vietnam and China, but those temples were exceptional in terms of quality. We really enjoyed Kolkata. I think Kolkata’s got this cultural soul that doesn’t exist in places like Delhi. Culturally it’s a little bit different, the food is quite different, it’s just really interesting and we had that at the end of the trip and I would encourage people to go to Kolkata.