Tag Archives: India

How Not To Do India in 3 Days

9 Jun

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India is one of those countries where you either love it or you hate it. We had a hard time adjusting to the culture and finding the charm in India, and we were happy to be in and out in less than half a week.

Due to flight scheduling, we only had 3 days in India and thus decided to make seeing the Taj Mahal our one and only goal. We achieved it but it certainly was a whirlwind.

Night #1
Arriving in New Delhi, our senses were overloaded with 110 degree heat at 10pm, crazy traffic, not-faint-for-the-heart driving, people and animals everywhere, homeless beggars lying around in the street, and in general, chaos. We even saw a dead body in the street a hundred yards down from our hotel. My initial thoughts were: this country is a disaster. It was quite a shock coming from the cleanliness and civility of Thailand.

On top of that, I’ve never felt so unwelcome in a country due to the staring. Everyone stares at you, and especially Jeannie as a female. You get the impression that the general population has never seen an Asian person, even though India is supposedly part of Asia! It’s an extremely uncomfortable feeling and something that we almost never experienced having grown up in California. The last time Jeannie was stared at was during a cross country road trip going through Indiana. Even then it was just a curious stare from some kids. In India, it felt much more intense and very invasive.

Day #1 in New Delhi
To get to the Taj, we had to first get train tickets to Agra. There’s no way to buy train tickets in advance online, so we gambled and decided to try our luck once we landed in New Delhi. All of the hotel staff and travel agencies said that there would be no way to find next-day tickets to Agra, and we would have to hire a private driver ($100) for the 120-mile trip to Agra (which takes at least 5-7 hours driving due to inadequate roads). I refused to believe that, so the next morning we headed out to the New Delhi Railway Station via subway. Surprisingly, the subway is clean, efficient, and modern, with AC. Once we got to the railway station after 2 stops, we crossed over to platform 1 to find the International Tourist Bureau, where we scored same-day tickets in AC3 class using the foreign tourist quota. Most people don’t know that a small percentage of seats in all trains (usually 2 per train) is reserved for foreign tourists, but it takes a lot of effort to book these seats. In addition, we were able to buy next-day return tickets on the 8pm Shadabati express (takes about 2.5 hrs), all for $30 for the two of us.

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One of the subway entrances was ghetto as heck, but inside it was decent.

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The train station was chaos and just plain ghetto. There is limited seating so people will just lie on the ground everywhere throughout the station. Kids will pee on the train tracks. No surprises, trash everywhere as well.
AC3 is a mid-class sleeper car, with 6 people per compartment section. During the day, the bottom berths fold into seats. It was a fairly decent 3.5 hour ride (we had non-annoying neighbors), and we found our way to the prepaid taxi stand for our ride to the Radisson, which is walking distance to the Taj. We’d definitely recommend the Radisson for the convenience factor. For the Taj Mahal being the bread and butter of Agra, no, India!, you’d think Agra itself wouldn’t be so run down and crappy. But it was, and we definitely were glad we didn’t stay in town. In fact we didn’t even go into town once and took all our meals at the hotel.

Day #2, now in Agra
The next morning, we started walking to the Taj at 6am in order to beat the crowds, heat, and street peddlers, and to capture the building and grounds in the early morning sun. It was definitely worth it. If you go any later you’ll be bombarded with locals trying to lure you into buying overpriced souvenirs, food, and rides via animal/wheels. It’s extremely overwhelming and sometimes even dangerous. Not every tourist knows this, but your ticket (which you buy away from the gate) allows you a free ride via golf cart to the gate itself. You just have to queue outside for a moment. However, locals will try to trick you into going into their trucks, and pretty much pretend that it’s free. Of course the unsuspecting tourist will accept the ride, and have to pay later. We really, really, detest this kind of scamming, and it seems that the government turns a blind eye when it comes to scammers.

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The Taj Mahal is a beautiful mausoleum situated in a large garden overlooking the river. The inside is a relatively simple crypt–it’s the outside where the beauty lies. Once the sun started heating up and the tourists started coming en masse, it was time to go…at 9:30am. Yep, we made it back in time for the hotel breakfast!

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We were able to score a late check out from our hotel and squatted in the lobby until 7pm. Then began our most ridiculous plan to date: 8pm train from Agra to New Delhi Railway Station, 11pm next-to-last-subway train of the night from the railway station to the airport, cumulating in our hotel picking us up at 11:30pm (our hotel offers free airport pick-up, and no one said you had to fly in to redeem it!). We really were ballsy in formulating this plan, I don’t know what we were thinking. Anything could have gone wrong and we would have been SOL. Our train could have been really really late (it actually was only 20 min late). The website could have lied about the last airport express subway train from the railway station to the airport (website said 11:30pm, our hotel in Agra told us it was 11pm). Our hotel could have forgotten to pick us up and we would have been stranded at midnight. However, luck was on our side, and we made all the connections smoothly, just 15 minutes later than we planned. We did end up catching the next to last airport express, whew! We felt like we were in an episode of The Amazing Race.

Day #3, originally supposed to explore New Delhi, but we opted to late check out and squat at our hotel with the free AC all day and all night…until 2:30AM. Because yes folks, we had a 6am flight to Jordan. Add that to the list of “what were Jerry and Jeannie thinking.”
So we’d probably not recommend to do what we did in terms of cutting things so close. We were successful, but boy were we stressed out for a little while. But we truly did not want to spend a second more than necessary in New Delhi or Agra. We just aren’t the kind of travelers that find fascination in the poverty, chaos and lack-of-infrastructure that seems to dominate New Delhi/Agra. Maybe other parts of India are totally different and actually civil, but we aren’t eager to find out anytime soon, if ever.

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Especially when it’s 113 degrees.

A Little Reputation Would Go A Long Way

22 May

While I will never cease to shop at big box stores (Target is my jam!), I also like supporting small businesses. Often Jerry and I prefer to eat at hole-in-the-walls over chains. I enjoy looking for one-of-a-kind gifts at events such as Unique LA. But while traveling, we don’t feel all that inclined to support a certain subset of small businesses, i.e. drivers, shopkeepers, restaurants etc.

It’s not that we don’t want to support them. We do. But we feel uncomfortable in doing so because in many of the countries we’ve been to, the reputation is less than stellar. Examples:

If the driver tells you that the hotel is full/closed/under repair, don’t trust the driver because touts (drivers in India) at the airport copy your name on their placards and cheat, so never trust anyone until you arrive at the hotel.

In that vein, don’t get into a taxi unless you’ve agreed upon a price. Drivers will often take you on a circuitous route and your bill will be doubled or even tripled, or you may even be taken to a strange place and their buddies will rob you.

Bargain hard, upwards of 30%-50% because shopkeepers won’t hesitate to start very high.

Don’t eat at restaurants that don’t list prices on the menu, because you’ll end up with a really high bill.

Speaking of high bills, don’t trust anyone in China that wants to strike up a conversation with you under the pretense of wanting to improve their English. They’ll sweet talk you into going to a tea house, and leave you with a $300 bill.

Ridiculous but not surprising, yes? None of us are born yesterday, we can see through all these tricks. We sympathize with the fact that everyone needs to make a living, and of course tourists are a gold mine that should be tapped into, it would be very unbusiness-like to not take advantage of that. But taking advantage should only go so far. And while there are many honest business folk out there, unfortunate a few bad apples ruins it all.

We would most likely choose the first decent looking taxi company we saw if they were all cut from the same cloth. Unfortunately, I don’t relish the the fact that we’d be at the mercy of the driver at any given time, and we have no choice but to decline rides from numerous taxis and only ride with ones that have a good reputation. So FYI, if you’re in Vietnam, go with the Mai Linh or Taxi Group because they actually use their meters accurately. And be careful, there’s a taxi group out there that mimics the logo of Mai Linh and instead spells it as M Linh. Yep, counterfeit taxis, the nerve of them! Because they have the reputation of ripping us off even a few cents, they lose dollars in potential fares.

To us, it’s not the amount of getting ripped off on, but the principle of it. We’ll spend $5 more in your shop, but if you try to rip us off 50 cents, it makes us feel like spending zero, and instead we’d give our money to someone else more honest, which unfortunately may be a big box store that lists prices.

Speaking of spending money, Jer and I, we hate bargaining. We really have no interest in playing games to see how low we can go. After all, the shopkeeper has to make a living as well! So our tactic has been to just name a price that we think is fair, and to stick to it. We don’t like going back and forth. Ultimately it’s just a matter of pennies or dollars, and to us it doesn’t feel good to achieve some sort of moral victory or whatnot that we saved fifty cents. So be it if the price we think is fair still ends up being more than what it’s worth. This tactic backfired on us once in Hong Kong when we got thrown out of a few stalls in Mongkok for bargaining too low on a cell phone case, but otherwise it’s been working for the most part!

Getting ripped off is just one of the aspects of traveling, and we’re okay with that when things are out of our hands or if the situation calls for it, i.e. that $4 we spent on 600ml bottle of Fanta because it was 100 degrees at Iguazu Falls and we were desperate. And sometimes we’ll just buy that Taj Mahal souvenir for a buck more because it’s our last opportunity or because it saves us time, and because it’s not worth it to haggle over fifty cents. But certainly when we do have opportunity and choice, we’ll make sure to go with our gut, even if it means giving our business to chains over mom and pops. A little reputation goes a long way!

Lesson Learned: Visas

13 Feb

Woohoo! Our final visa from the Indian Embassy in San Francisco just came in the mail. This one ended up being a little too close for comfort because we didn’t calculate all the time required to sequentially process each visa. On the other hand, we didn’t want to apply too early because some of the visas start the clock immediately after issue. The Indian visa in particular, expires 6 months from date of issue, and we’re not planning on being there for another 3-4 months.

Here’s a rundown of the four visas which we had to send our passport in for processing. Many other countries require fees upon entry and/or exit, but no official visa is required.

China – 1 year from date of issue, $140 pp. Apply in person, one week processing time, they take your passport. The Los Angeles visa office is reminiscent of the DMV, but with cute old Chinese ladies. “B203, go to window #2, G319, go to window #5.”

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Brazil – 10 years from date of issue, $140 pp. Must apply in person, one week processing time, they take your passport. The most colorful and cheerful visa office ever! ┬áBeing that we’re only going to be in Brazil for 5.5 days, we’ll have to come back sometime in the next decade to make it worth it!

Vietnam – 1 month from date of arrival specified, $80 pp. Can either be loose-leaf (don’t need passport) or passport sticker (you mail in the passport to Washington DC embassy). The website is ultra confusing, and does not list prices. You have to call or email the embassy in DC for prices. In Jeannie’s family’s experiences, the visa paperwork is taken care of by the travel agent who books the flights.

India – 6 months from date of issue, $76 pp. Must mail your passport to the Travisa office in San Francisco. I’ve heard some hit-and-miss things about the Indian embassy on the internet, but (thankfully) our visas were processed in 2 days, and was 7 days total door-to-door. Others have reported taking several weeks for their visas.

Here’s a tip- we went the DIY passport photo route and made a whole stack of passport-sized photos. That way, we could just grab as we went along without having to stop and print extras. This was extra handy for the Vietnam visa, since they required 2 copies of the passport photo.

Lesson learned: next time, we will apply a week or two earlier!

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