Archive for September, 2006

Travelling in India

Monday, September 4th, 2006

My first month-long visit to India was in Rajasthan, with a friend and colleague, and most of the traveling was done with private car and driver. It’s not the way I usually travel, but the distances between places were long, the weather was hot and humid, the roads were in terrible condition and we had business-related baggage which we didn’t want to lose.

My second month in India was spent on motorbike. I took a train from Mumbai to Goa where my son was waiting for me, we hung out on the beach a few days and then crossed India by bike – on his indomitable Enfield – via Mysore, Ooty, Mamalapuram and all the way to Pondicherry on the east coast. I saw India from up close, coasting through rice fields and stopping at dhaba shacks for chai. With no fixed schedule and no advance reservations, living out of a backpack, this was India free and easy. We took a train only once (the 12 hour overnight train to Chennai) when we packed the bike on the train with us. Otherwise, it was 8 hours a day on the bike, in leather jackets and helmets. Two spills, two almost-accidents (one with an elephant), and a trip of a lifetime.

My most recent month in India was spent between Leh and Ladakh in the very north, and Dharamsala in Himachal, with Amritsar in Punjab sandwiched in between. I flew with Jet Air between Delhi and Leh, then trained back to Delhi to catch the overnight Golden temple express to Amritsar. From there, I continued with private car and driver to Dharamsala, and at the end of the month, returned to Delhi by overnight sleeper bus, Jet Air back to Mumbai and home.

India by air is western, but India on the ground is a bazaar. Jet Air is a terrific airline –  on time, new fleet, efficient crew and great food. I wouldn’t fly in India with anyone else. Trains are a different story. The main stations are huge and disorganized, with several different lines to wait in before walking away with a ticket. They are also dirty and noisy, although they do boast porterwallahs who carry your bags on their head so you never have to deal with carrying them yourself. I have always traveled second class a/c, which is comfortable and you meet interesting people.  The only awful trip was a 12 hour overnight to Chennai, when all the tickets were sold except for Katkal (last minute) tickets in third class. Uncomfortable, unpleasant company, unsafe (for a woman), filthy toilet and not a wink of sleep. Note: As a precaution, bags must always be secured under the train seat with a metal chain.

Driving in India in the big cities is madness. Streets are unmarked, maps are rudimentary and for non-residents, taking taxis or motor rickshaws is the only way. Every airport has a counter for paid in advance taxis to your hotel, which makes life easier.

New sleeper buses now travel between Dharamsala and Delhi, and if you don’t mind stopping at pitstops for overpriced food, blaring Indian music and the driver’s free dinner, all is well. The buses leave you off 10 minutes from the Delhi train station, where taxi and rickshaw drivers fight over the privilege of driving you to your destination.

India’s Big Cities – if you have to

Sunday, September 3rd, 2006

I am not a fan of India’s big cities, and that’s an understatement. Yes, there are beautiful buildings and gardens and temples, the bazaars are colorful and the food amazing, but you can find all these in smaller cities and towns, without the surrounding urban squalor. Rural squalor in India is somehow more palatable. But the gateways to India are mostly in the big cities, so here are my recommendations for spending a day or two in transit.

Mumbai: near both airports, Le Royal Meridian www.leroyalmeridian-mumbai.com is a haven of tranquility, for a layover or just to reenergize before continuing on. A bit further into town, on Juhu Tara Rd, and with nearby streets to walk around, are the medium-rated Ramada Palm Grove www.krahejahospitality.com, with complimentary jacuzzi and steam room and great massages, and the luxury JW Marriott mail@jwmarriotmumbai.com with a wonderful bookshop cafe. In town, delicious food is served at Chetana veg restaurant and bar at 34 k Dubash Marg, tel 2284 4968, and at Leopold Cafe (since 1871!) on Colaba Causeway, around the corner from the Taj. Upscale and upper priced, but with great food and wine, is the Moti Mahal restaurant in the north of the city, in Bandra, tel 91 22 26408577, at junction of Gurunanak and Waterfield Rds. An excellent guide in Mumbai is Mrs Madhavi Marwaha tel 0091 9987399683,  madhavi_dw@hotmail.com.

Chennai: Taj Coromandel, at 37 Mahatma Gandhi Rd. An oasis of luxury: feather quilts, an unbelievable buffet breakfast, and service extraordinaire. www.tajhotels.com  Note: I have been in many guesthouses, in India and elsewhere, but the worst was undoubtedly Broadlands. Filthy, badly lit, surly service and to be avoided at all costs. If you go anyway (some people are masochists) ask for directions to the nearby Hotel Sree Bhavan restaurant at 339 Triplicane High Rd, which serves some of the best food – achingly cheap but fabulous – in India.

Delhi: Hotel Broadway (3*) on 4/15 Ali Assaf Rd, near the train station, is clean, safe and convenient for visiting the markets of Old Delhi (Chandni Chowk for jewelry) and catching long distance trains, but its claim to fame is the fabulous restaurant, Chor Bizarre, written up in the NY Times and elsewhere (tel 91 11 23273821, broadway@oldworldhospitality.com) The cuisine is superb, the decor amazing and in spite of their name (thieves’ bazaar) prices ultra reasonable. They also offer walking tours. Do not miss!! 

In New Delhi, Connaught Circle can keep you busy shopping for a day or two, but beautiful and expensive one of a kind jewelry can be seen  – and purchased – at Indian Arts Palace (since 1840!), at 19E Connaught Place, tel 23416203.