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going to India at last

rain 11 °C

I have always wanted to go to India -- for as long as I can remember. I've always been fascinated with its history and spiritualiity ... and have also been attracted to its dazzling, over-saturated colour and texture, architecture and treasures, music and films, literature and culture and, yes, food. It is just a sensory feast -- almost more than one can bear actually. It's been there, always in the back of my mind ... until destiny recently took over:

One of my mother's closest friends has a daughter who is married to a man who works for Unicef. Most of their married life has been spent moving from place to place -- Bangladesh, Africa, Viet Nam, Nepal -- and now they are in Delhi.

When my mom died Ellen (the daughter) sent me a lovely note and planted the seed -- "why not come to India while we're here?" she asked. Why not indeed. So, without hesitating for even a minute, I sent back an email saying I was seriously thinking about it.

She then got back to me and said that India could be overwhelming -- there was so much to see and do and learn. She went on to say I needed to think carefully about what I wanted from this trip -- did I want a cultural experience ... a spiritual experience ... an architectural experience etc.

At that particular time of my life, having just lost my mother, this seemed like too big a task. She was right, of course, but I didn't think I had it in me to do that much soul-searching. So I tucked it right back into the back of my mind where it had always been, promising myself that I would get to it in the near future.

But I'd caught the bug.

And although I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about it, I did occasionally spend time on the Internet doing some research. Then one Sunday morning in late Winter or early Spring of this year I was plowing through the New York Times over breakfast.

Lo and behold, they had an article in the Travel Section about Pondicherry. Located in the Southeast on the Bay of Bengal, what I found fascinating about Pondicherry is the fact that it consists of 4 former French coastal settlements. So you can walk down one side of a street, order a cafe au lait and speak French and on the other you see men and women in native Indian garb, speaking Hindi.

I was sold!

So back I went on the Internet -- and that's when I discovered Kerala -- otherwise known as "God's Own Country" -- magnificent, lush, verdant, a nature lover's paradise -- and also the birthplace of Ayurvedic treatments.

An itinerary was starting to take shape in my mind: Delhi (lots to see including Ellen) ... Agra (how could I not go to see the Taj Mahal) ... Pondicherry ... Kerala. My mind was made up. I was going to India.

Did some more research online and decided on a December/January timeframe because the weather was the easiest to bear -- dry, relatively cool in the North and tolerable in the South.

Ironically I was going to Montreal for a bar mitzvah and Ellen was there visiting her mother. We met for lunch and talked about my plans. She suggested that I add Jaipur to my itinerary. We agreed that I would come back to Toronto, do more extensive research, complete a thorough itinerary and send it to her for comments and suggestions. My dream was becoming reality.

The minute I got back I headed to the travel section of my favourite bookstore. Grabbing 6 books on India off the shelf I found an easy chair and started going through them. I must have been there for at least an hour and a half. Finally I settled on one: Fodor's Guide to India. I picked that one because one of the features it had was suggestions on what to see if you only had 3 days, or 5 days or 7 days, etc. -- and, as Ellen had warned me, there was so much to see I was already drowning. The guidebook was helping me make sense of it all and narrow my wish list down. It was definitely the right choice for me to have made.

As I read, I kept turning to the Internet -- to check out hotels and sites ... temples and tours ... shopping and galleries ... cities, towns and villages.

I also decided, along the way, that I wanted to go on this trip alone. Why, I do not know -- or at least I didn't feel like delving into it. I am someone who tends to trust my instincts so I wasn't questioning it. If I wanted to go alone, I'd go alone. My friends, although supportive, tried to suggest that I reconsider this decision. They were concerned -- and I can't say their concerns weren't valid -- I, for some reason, just didn't share them.

And then I discovered The Palace On Wheels.

The Palace on Wheels is a luxury train that is a replica of those once owned by rulers -- to say it's ornate is an understatement. The beauty of it is that because you travel from place to place overnight, in just 8 days you get to see a lot of Rajasthan -- much more than I had thought manageable on my own.

This way I could not only see Agra and Jaipur I would also travel to Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Ranthambhore, Chittaurgarh, Udaipur and Bharatpur. The price included meals, tours, everything but tips, sundries, alcohol, etc. It made great use of time and my friends were thrilled because at least on this part of the journey I wouldn't be alone.

If I did this at the beginning of my trip I'd get my "sea legs" before setting off on my own.

I checked out their website and the price with a single supplement, for travel in December/January was $3,800.

I also found a travel company online, that came highly recommended.

They had an office in Toronto so I called. They didn't book the Palace on Wheels so I said I could do that myself -- and I asked them to plan the rest of my trip -- including cars, drivers and English speaking guides. I gave the girl I spoke with a rough idea of what I was interested in, and a rough budget.

In less then half an hour I had received an email from her with a suggested itinerary. I must say this surprised me a bit -- I would have thought she might have spent a bit more time thinking about it -- but ...

She was off the mark completely on the hotels -- putting me in American hotels in some places; and the itinerary itself was OK but it wasn't making my heart skip a beat. Personally I think it was right off the shelf -- I didn't feel like she'd listened to me at all. So I called her back and re-briefed her. The follow-up wasn't really that much more exciting. Plus she had me flying everywhere -- which meant I wouldn't see anything of the countryside -- and I would have spent most of my time at airports waiting endlessly for planes.

Back to the drawing board I went ...

The next travel agent I found was, surprisingly enough, right near my office. This time he said he could book the train for me -- and once we'd settled on a date for the train he'd build the rest of the vacation around it. I liked him -- and felt he'd add a lot of value because he is from India himself -- and I figured that the personal knowledge he would bring would be a real benefit.

Within a few hours I got a call from him. He had an available date in December and then he told me the trip would cost me $7,900 -- more than double what I'd found online!

I explained that this couldn't be. He said I couldn't be right -- that I'd looked at the wrong time of year or had forgotten about the single supplement, which is apparently high in India.

Knowing I was right about what I'd found I told him to go to the site I'd been to -- which is the Palace On Wheels site -- and told him what I'd done to get the cost. In minutes he called me back to say I had been right. Not that it did me any good -- they refused to honour that price.

Truth be told, I'd written him and the train off and I was re-thinking my itinerary yet again, when -- days later -- I heard from him.

"I have a great deal for you", he proclaimed!

"I called them directly -- in India -- and here's what they are prepared to do for you: They (Palace on Wheels) will try to find a room mate for you -- maybe a woman -- and, if they cannot you will not have to pay the single supplement."

Giving my head a shake -- because I couldn't believe I'd heard right -- I said, "Are you suggesting that I not only share a stateroom on a train with a complete stranger, but that stranger could very possible be a man?"

Don't get me wrong. I'm no prude. And I am looking for an adventure. But being cooped up in a small space with some strange man isn't my idea of heaven -- unless of course he's George Clooney -- or Barack Obama -- and truth be told, I don't think his wife would let him go.

So ... did this make me give up on India??

Posted by a_broad 09:36 Archived in India Tagged preparation

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