"We found India intriguing, beguiling, wonderfully breathtaking and beautiful" Peter Bermingham
Some insights into India and "tips" from one of our recent travellers
The India Incredible
India is not the place nor the experience many expect. I had been told by travellers that the human smell of India seeps into your nostrils the minute the air-seal is broken with the opening of the aircraft exit door. I had been warned of the inability to eat the food or drink the water, and the squalor and the poverty. I can only assume that these are the views of those who see the world from the prism of the glass being half empty.
We found India intriguing, beguiling, wonderfully breathtaking and beautiful. I deliberately checked for any unpleasant smells in the air when disembarking the plane at the newly-opened Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. There were none. They do not exist. Nor were they in evidence for all the time we stayed and all the places we visited. Emerging from the airport at 11.00 pm was a revelation. The streets outside the terminal teemed with people, cars, buses, motorcycles, cycle-rickshaws and the ubiquitous tuk tuk’s. We were met by the New Delhi representative of SITA, the travel service company through which our trip was booked. We had come to New Delhi to ride the famous train, the Palace on Wheels, for an eight day sojourn through Rajasthan, to visit the famous palaces, temples and attractions that appear in all the international tourist brochures.
On the night of our arrival we were driven by air-conditioned LandCruiser to our hotel on the Ashoka Road, The Royal Plaza. (I had recently read about Emperor Ashoka, whose Wheel of Law today adorns the Indian flag. Here we were, driving down a street named for him. Straight away I felt the history of India in my conscienceness). I was excited. Our first experience with accommodation in India was an enjoyable one. I wrote the following review for The Royal Plaza Hotel, but for some reason their website would not accept it.
We stayed in an Economy room in a very grand hotel, The Royal Plaza. Even in our price range the quality of accommodation in this hotel the room was very, very comfortable. We did not require a five star hotel on this leg of our holiday. My Travel Agent made this reservation for us. It was a matter of trusting your TA to provide the level of comfort/affordability that you are looking for. He got it exactly right with this hotel. This is a luxury hotel but not necessarily at a 5-Star price. The grandeur of the foyer and the presentation and attention of the front desk staff tell you all you need to know about the level of service. But, if you are travelling on a budget, you can stay here in an Economy room here with confidence. The Buffet breakfast rates as Excellent because of the wide-range and quality of food and beverage on offer. In Delhi, this is where we will always stay on return visits. We highly recommend this hotel.
Boarding time for the Palace on Wheels (POW) is around 4 pm, at which time you are officially welcomed by a ceremony on the platform and taken to your Sleeping Car by the Carriage Attendants, in our case it was Bahgwan and Santosh, who are assigned to that car and patiently tend to your needs for the entire journey.
Before reporting at Safdarjung Station (the embarkation point for the POW) we decided to arrange a guided tour. All the tour and POW train ticketing was arranged by Andre` Rasquinha of Travel Talk, Lt Collins Street, Melbourne. Andre is an Indian now living in Australia and needs little encouragement to extoll the wonders of his mother country.
Footnote: I had attempted to obtain tickets for the POW from a specialist rail tour company in the United States, only to be informed that the ticket allocation has been exhausted on the date we wanted to travel. The train departs every week from August through to April, with April 18 being the final run before breaking for the summer and resuming service again on August 1st. I incidentally mentioned this to Andre as part of a broader conversation about travel options on the Sub-Continent when he remarked that the unavailability of Sleeper accommodations may not necessarily be the case. He would, he said, make enquiries with people he knew in Delhi regarding Sleepers on the train. Voila`. He rang back and advised that through his source tickets were still available and if we wanted to go, he could make the reservations. I was flabbergasted and impressed at the same time. Did we want the tickets? You bet. In a couple of hours the flights, hotels and sightseeing in New Delhi and reservations on the POW, were all arranged.
The itinerary for the POW can be viewed on the internet here. What you cannot view online are the nuances, the sounds and the ambience of the people and places that you see and meet. There is a lot that the brochures, guide books and internet sites cannot tell you. They cannot possibly convey what you will feel when you mix with the people and travel on the roads and in the bazaars; India has a soul, a character and smile - and it feels nice.
Prior to undertaking this journey I thought I was fairly knowledgable about the history of India. I now see that I knew very little about India, but visiting this historic wonderland has whetted my desire to learn more, and see India again. Our Tour Guide at Jaisalmer, Mr. Anil, summed it up very succinctly. He said, the first time you come to India you see her, the second time you hear her, but the third time you taste her. After tasting the exotic fruit that is India resistence is useless.
I have seen hundreds of pictures and videos of the high spots of India, but no panoramic, anamorphic or special effect photographs can prepare you for when you see the spectacle of India through your own eyes for the first time. The majesty of the Red Fort in New Delhi is breath-taking in size and scale, and represents a period in the history of the world that is such a departure from the history of Australia that I found it hard to comprehend. Difficult to understand, but not difficult to appreciate. Walking through the Red Fort, looking at the palaces and imagining the way of life that existed in the time of ShahJahan was very ethereal for me. In another part of the compound seeing the newer additions of the dormitories for the troops garrisoned in the Fort during the time of the British Raj takes you to another period in the story of life in Delhi and the Fort.
Returning to the present, riding in the passenger carrier of a cycle rickshaw, through the narrow back streets of Delhi, in transit to Jama Masjid, the famous mosque at Meena Bazaar, near Chandni Chowk. As your rickshaw-puller winds you through and around lanes bristling with merchants, traders, buyers, watchers, listeners, eaters, drinkers and talkers, the sound of India is a cacophony of language and chatter, babble and screech. Magical, and absolutely safe.
For anyone not deeply familiar with Islam but with an interest, India provides the perfect introduction. The glorious architecture of the Persian empire and the reverence of the Islamic tradition, synthesized with the tolerance and pacificity of Hindism, embedded in the climate and landscape of the sub-continent, is a sublime blend of religion, geography, society and history.
For this, our first and by no means last, visit to the Sub-continent, I was eager to ensure that, as a westerner, I was mindful and respectful of Indian sensibilities. This really is a simple task to accomplish. Just treat others as you yourself would wish to be treated. This universal tenet is the key to goodwill in any country, but ridiculously easy in India, where most people start from the basis of a naturally pleasant disposition anyway. So, in general terms, it is easy to be respectful of the Indian people and way of life. It’s in the little things that we tourist visitors often make the mistakes. One of the most regularly made errors is in the payment of gratuities, or tipping. I was very careful to enquire of my Travel Agent as to the proper tipping etiquette when travelling in India. For the most part his information was accurate, but needs a little clarification.
The appropriate levels of tipping on the POW is nothing. This is the “official” position of the Rajasthani Tourist Board. It makes good Press for the tourists but denies the reality, and the needs, of the people in the tourist service industries, who often rely on gratuities to remit a reasonable living.
When you travel on the POW overnight and arrive at your new destination you may observe that the buses and bus crews that take the passengers sightseeing are the same every day. These buses and crews are in dedicated POW service, as the saloon compartments of these buses can be sealed off and air-conditioned for the comfort of overseas visitors, who would be decidedly uncomfortable if exposed to the Indian heat for prolonged periods whilst being driven to and from the daily destinations. It will be noted that the driving compartments of the buses are not air-conditioned, so the bus-driver and his assistant do not share our comfort. They are exposed to the heat throughout the entire journey. At the conclusion of your days’ touring, upon your return to the train for refreshments, a rest and dinner, the bus and its crew immediately head off to our next destination, thereby ensuring that the buses are in position for the next days’ sight-seeing. Sometimes, as in the case of the trip from Udaipur to Jaisalmer (Day 4 to Day 5), a distance of about 1000 kilometres entails the crews driving the buses throughout the night.
It will be further noted that there are usually three buses that meet the train every day, with the passengers divided into three groups for travel on the buses. The groups are known as Pink Group, Green Group and Yellow Group. There are usually a number of empty seats in each bus. This is deliberately done to enable the Tour Group Supervisors to put two groups in a single bus in the event that one of the buses breaks down and cannot be used. Replacing a bus of this design with these amenities at short notice, many kilometres away from New Delhi, would be impossible. Because the Supervisors organize the buses in this manner, if a bus does happen to break down the international tourists are inconvenienced, just a little more squeezed up that they would be otherwise. The Tour Group Supervisor for our band of intrepid travellers, known as Pink Group, was Anil. (No, not the Jaisalmer Anil, another Anil).
Tour Group Supervisor Anil was responsible for the safety and comfort of Pink Group, the co-ordination and rendezvous of the bus, the daily entertainment and the timely passage of the group to the restaurants and dining rooms of the tourists venues and palaces. He also co-ordinates with the Passenger Attendants to ensure all the on-train requirements of passengers is satisfied.
All these employees, together with the Dining Car Chefs and Waiters, all combine to ensure that the international traveller returns to their country of origin being as impressed with the level of personal service as they are with the palaces. These Personal Service employees need to be suitably acknowledged and rewarded. In India, this is normally done with a Tip. The minimum rates for tipping in India on and off the POW are as follows:
Passenger Attendant/s (Butler/s). per person, per day 5/ 250
Tour Guides 5-8 / 250-400
Elephant Mahout (Driver) 2 / 100
Game Reserve 5 / 250
Porter per large case 1 / 50
Per Sita Rep. 2 / 100
Per Driver 2 / 100
Guide on Delhi Trip 10 / 500
It will seen that after you convert back to Australian Dollars from Rupees, it will not cost the Australian tourist a lot to render the appropriate level of gratuity for the service provided. It will however, make a significant difference to the prosperity of the person providing the service to you. If you love India, as I do, the best way to demonstrate your appreciation is to acknowledge and reward those Indians who were directly responsible for your enjoyment.
THE BENELUX BONANZA
The journey I was about to undertake would not only in geographical terms span vast distances over land and sea......it was an odyssey which would cover a period of over four hundred years and one in which I would try to establish a "connection" with my ancestors.