Region: Asia

Intrepid Travel with Intrepid Travel

Intrepid Travel with Intrepid Travel

We virtually always travel on our own, not with a tour group. We did Vietnam and Cambodia and Indonesia by ourselves. But even we were not up to striking off on our own across India. At the same time, the last thing we wanted to do was find a standard tour group, paying inflated prices and eating dinner at dumbed-down tourist buffets watching kitchy “culture shows”. A friend we met on our ref: /Travel/Asia/Cruises/Zaandamcruise0403/index.html cruise last year introduced us to a third alternative – a company called Intrepid Travel – that is best described as an organized backpackers trip. They have great itineraries, with all the spots you want to see. They arrange for local-style transportation — buses, rickshaws, trains — inexpensive, and culturally interesting. They find interesting, inexpensive guest houses to stay at. They arrange for local guides where appropriate. Then they leave you alone to eat where you want, and do what you want, when you want. It takes all the hassle out of travelling, while still leaving you lots of freedom. And it is surprisingly inexpensive. So, we signed up for Intrepid’s 22 day “Rajasthan Adventure” tour, and set off with eight other travelers and a guide. To see the description and dossier, visit their site and plug in “RSH” for the tour code.

The tour: the term “Intrepid” fits. We were concerned (and potentially dreading) some of what the tour contained: (dirty, crowded, uncomfortable) public buses, shoddy hotels, “everybody gets sick” (this last turned out to be basically true). But with some exceptions, the time on public transport passed quickly, and we all lived to tell the tales. The guest houses were generally restored former palaces and upscale havelis (trader’s mansions) and entirely acceptable. This style of travel brought us much closer to local people and economy. It is sometimes difficult to gauge peoples’ genuine intentions here; are they “interested” because they want to sell you something, or is this basic person-person kindness? Sometimes we insulate ourselves because we don’t want to get hurt — unfortunate because we don’t learn anything that way.
Traveling with Intrepid has also given us more confidence about inexpensive 3rd world travel. We tend to travel inexpensively but well, taking relatively few risks but getting fewer rewards as a result. The trip doesn’t make me yearn for the interaction of a public bus, but does pique my curiousity and makes it more likely I would risk a “bad” interaction in exchange for the probability of a good one.

Next time, we’ll have the skills to see India on our own – but will travel with Intrepid again when the going gets tough (Uzbekistan, anyone?)
One great benefit of traveling with Intrepid is the fellow travelers on the journey – you can meet them here.

Next: Our Traveling Companions

Hello, Delhi

Hello, Delhi

What have we gotten ourselves into?

Getting There is Half the Fun

We bid adieu to our friends the Nichols-Henrys in Chiang Mai and packed for our trip to India. We wanted to be sure we made the connection so we decided to change to an earlier Chiang Mai-Bangkok flight, only to find out we don’t actually have any reservations from Chiang Mai to Bangkok.. We’ve got tickets, the tickets say “OK” (i.e. confirmed not waitlisted) — but it seems that the travel agency neglected to provide the airlines with a ticket number, so as far as Thai Airways goes, we were never ticketed — so we don’t exist. We had paper tickets and they were quite surprised to hear that — once I rattled off the ticket numbers to them, they appreciated that it indeed was not our fault our ticket numbers hadn’t been entered into their system — except perhaps to the extent that we chose a lame Travel Agency. And, being the end of a holiday weekend, all the flights were completely booked until rather late in the afternoon, putting our connection at risk.
But, not to worry, we made it standby on an early connection, and arrived at Delhi Airport after a short 4.5 hour flight. . We get through Immigration (which has improved since Scott was last to Delhi), then waited for our luggage. And waited, and waited. No bags. We start scanning the airport horizon for the “Lost Luggage” claims office, in anticipation of having to spend an hour or three there… when we spot a sign that says “Star Alliance Priority”. Our bags had been removed from the belt, and important travelers that we are, was waiting patiently for us — and might well have been for the 3/4ths of an hour we’d been looking for the bags.

A Quick Introduction to Life in India

The airport is only mildly crazy, and we’ve both seen this kind of madness before (taxi, Boss? transport?). Our guidebook has recommended a specific spot to get a prepaid taxi, we finally find it and get into a painlessly-short queue. People try to cut into line but Scott’s seen this before and is not bashful about body-blocking the perpetrators. None succeed.
We get our taxi’s plate number (that’s how you find out who you’re going with — they give you the license plate). Helpful boys are nearby to hoist our luggage the 3′ it needs to go from the ground to the back of the taxi — but each one wants to get paid for this “service” (which we didn’t ask for). One gets some spare change, the others stern looks. We didn’t ask you for help, and we didn’t offer to pay you. Welcome to India.
The driver has the address of our first “tour” hotel. It’s a neighborhood north of New Delhi (more on the “New Delhi / Old Delhi” thing later), nearby but not in the backpackers’ part of New Delhi (where rooms — and life — are cheap). We’re looking for a place called the “Good Times” hotel, in this Karol Bagh district.
The first inclination that this is going to be… entertaining… is the driver says “Karol Bagh… very big”. Now, we’re traveling on a prepaid taxi fare, so it is not in the driver’s best interest to feign not being able to find the place. He gets paid when we leave the taxi — and we ain’t leaving till we see a sign that says “Good Times Hotel”. So maybe he really doesn’t know where we’re going. Well, after quite a number of stops to ask direction, we get there eventually; turns out that taxi drivers in Delhi lack the navigational skills of those in say, London. To put it mildly.
We wouldn’t exactly call theGood Times hotel charming – servicable would be the kindest description we could muster. Dingy, uncomfortably thin beds, moth balls in all the drains, 15 watt bulbs — think $20 motel in rural Alabama. But, the staff was friendly & it was a place to lay our heads. The flight from Bangkok to Delhi was short, but after that ticket hassle in Chiang Mai, Customs, baggage, Immigration, taxi, money change, an hour of taxi-driving that could curl your hair… it’d been a long day. But we were to know many long days. But first, we had some people to meet along the way (old friends and new), and a couple of days to explore the sites — and sights — of Delhi. (Ironically, on our return to Delhi after the Rajasthan Adventure, we were very appreciative of the many comforts and conveniences of the Good TImes – seriously)

It’s Nice Having Friends in the Right Places

Without going into the (interesting but verbose) details, Kathy had met Asha Pant… at a funeral in Boston. “We’re headed for India in a few weeks”, Kathy says. “We live in Delhi, you must come visit”, says Asha. So we do. Asha and her husband, who winter in Delhi and summer in Boston, are lovely hosts, infinitely helpful and patient with our neophyte ways in Delhi. Shortly after our arrival, we were invited to a party in our honor where we were introduced to a fascinating circle of friends and relatives; Scott was not at his health-best at that point (“Delhi belly”, its called) so he had a little trouble being outgoing and cheery with the crowd (“Just let me go somewhere and die” was his prevailing thought). Kathy did interact with a lot of interesting people; it was a but more difficult for Scott. Nonetheless a great start.
One of the party-attendees was Athena. Athena is a long-time friend of Asha’s from shared days in Paris. Athena is having her mid-career crises having recently left a position with the US State Department in Washington.. She’s been in Delhi, staying with Asha for a couple of months, so she too is a Delhi veteran and this proves both useful and entertaining as we go about our ways in Delhi.

Tea with Nigel, Thali with Hirendra

Athena has connections everywhere and one of them happened to be an older gentleman, Nigel. Nigel worked the British High Counsel in Delhi until he retired a few years ago and started giving tours to people referred by the High Commission. He has been a Delhi resident since the 1940s, and as you might imagine, was able to offer a unique perspective. He took us all around Old Delhi and New, giving the “British view” of the myraid events that have taken place between the English colonization of India, to the present independent countries of India and what is now Pakistan.
The tour included:

  • A visit to Matahma Gandi’s residence (there had very recently been a commeration, so it was particularly festive)
  • Wandering through Chadni Chowk, the market of Old Delhi. That’s a story in itself… for a later time.
  • Traditional Indian funeral pyre. Hindu custom calls for a dead person to be cremated soon after death — and this is performed at outdoor locations around the city. Doing our best to be unobtrusive (no pictures, for example), we visited on and observed the rituals
  • A lovely lunch at a venerable old hotel (Oberoi Maiden)
  • Visited a Sikh temple, and the spot where King George proclaimed that a “New Delhi” would be built (“but, what shall we call it?”)

Rajasthani or Gujurati?

Scott had been do India perhaps a half dozen times, each time in the kind care of Hirendra Gupta, who was Ascend/Lucent’s Sales Manager for India at the time. A competent, successful, perpetually-upbeat guy, Hirendra is always a delight to be with. Not your typical Sales Manager (not to pick on anyone in particular). Kathy had also met him and family, at a distributor get-together in Thailand. We really wanted to see him outside a normal business context. We exchanged emails and moved dates back and forth, but ultimately connected. The two of us, Hirendra and his wife got together in our Karol Bagh neighborhood, and had an excellent traditional thali dinner. Thali is a set meal which comes in a large, flat-bottomed, stainless steel bowl in which are placed multiple small courses. We got the choice of thali in the styles of the Indian states of Rajasthan, or Gujurati. We took one of each and “compared notes”.

This is no time to be a member of the “Clean Plate Club”

One of the traditions for thali meals, is they’re “all you can eat”. An Indian tradition in general, we found, was that visitors are encouraged to eat… and eat… and eat. Indians are wonderful, gracious hosts and food is an intrinsic part of friendship. The rub is, when you’re trained from childhood to “finish everthing” (“there are children starving in…”), and as soon as you finish something the Waiter comes and gives you more… well let’s say we didn’t lose any weight in India!

Preparing for the Intrepid Tour

We knew from reading the Intrepid literature, that we’d been needing to hoist our own luggage around — on and off buses and trains, in and out of hotels. Since there were more than a dozen stops along the way, we wanted to minimize what we took on the trip. Asha gracefully agreed to keep our un-needed stuff; we pared down to one carry-on-sized backpack each, plus a rucksack each. It was great to be rid of our surplus “stuff” — including the PC Scott’s using to write this website (that’s why the content is less contemporaneous than in past trips).
Around 6pm on the evening before the tour, we met our Guide, Jenny, and the people who were to become our fellow-travelers and ultimately, our friends. We’d already met Ref: /Travel/Asia/Thailand/ThaiIndia-0104/Delhi.html#Athena” (at Asha’s party) and that night we met the other seven new mates.
We got the basic “rules and regulations”, and as the tour unfolded we received short descriptions of each site and maps (which usually weren’t that great). The first day of the tour covered ground we’d already seen, so we did some other touring and had a relatively simple day in Delhi.

Next: A Little Background on our Tour

Welcome to India

Welcome to India

India Is Like No Place Else in the World

For Better and Worse.

Into India, with Trepidation

No one has ever accused India of being easy to visit. Fascinating, diverse, exotic, amazing, yes. But it has a repudation of being a difficult place to travel, between food poisoning, poverty, dirt, scams, etc. So, before we launch into the specifics of our trip, we need to first share what it’s like to travel in India. If you don’t understand this, nothing else will make much sense.

India is Like No Place Else in the World.

Now, Scott has been to India several times, travelling “business class” in the country. it was Kathy’s first time. So neither of us had really “experienced” the real India. We’ve been to many developing countries before, but as we were to repeat to ourselves many times during the trip, “India is like no place else in the world”.
Many of the first impressions of India aren’t particularly positive – and thus give an unfair slant to what is really a wonderful country – but you need to get over these things in order to truly appreciate it.

The first thing I noticed was the smoggy air – makes LA look like a cleanroom. Trucks and tuk tuks and buses all spewing out dark smelly fumes, the air with a dirty brown color. I had a bad cough by the second day – and so did many of the rest in our travel group. They’re working on the pollution – many tuk tuks and buses have been converted to LP gas. And they’ve got the city dug up for a new subway that should provide significant relief. They’ve managed to clean up Bankok’s air signficantly, maybe it will work here too.

Traffic in India is crazy, even by developing country standards. Besides the normal contingent of motor vehicles, there are cycle rickshaws, ox- and horse-drawn carts, various hand-pushed carts and wheelbarrows, people carrying loads on their back, market vendors overflowing the sidewalks into the street. Oh, I forgot to mention the cows. Yes, there really are cows everywhere, and they are perfectly content to find a sunny spot in the middle of a street and park themselves there, forcing traffic to divert around them. Sounds hectic, right? Now, imagine that the only traffic rule is that you can go as fast as you want, on whatever part of the road you want, as long as you honk to let people know you’re coming. In case of ties, the larger vehicle gets right of way. After several terrifying trips through the streets of Delhi, you realize that in fact this chaotic bedlam actually does have an underlying system to it that allows things to move along effectively, if you don’t die of fright on the way.

India is full of people. A billion plus of them. And they are everywhere – the sidewalks are full of people, the streets are full of people, the markets are full of people, the buses are full of people. People in western dress, women in saris, men in dhotis (the loose cotton loincloth like Gandhi wore), Sikhs in turbans, urchins in rags, tribal women with armlengths of bangles, businessmen in suits. Everything is crowded, everything is extotic. .
Everything is dirty – the buildings have layers of grime and pollution streaked down their fronts, seemingly never painted or washed. The streets are full of litter and spittle and cow patties. Men urinate against any handy wall. Open sewage gutters line the sides of most streets. The markets stalls are layered with dirt. There is grime everywhere; you come back to the hotel with dirty hands and feet and clothes. You need to endlessly wash your hands.

Scams and pressure to give up your money are everywhere. Newcomers are viewed like raw meat – charged 5x the going rate for a taxi, diverted to a different hotel rangued women and children continually and from all sides by people wanting to sell you something, talk with you about something, take you somewhere, providewhere the driver gets a commission, stopped during a tour at a rug store to buy (commission-inflated) carpets. Walking down the street, one is ha some service. All are loud and very persistant. Whatever it is, you are sure to be taken advantage of – maybe by a lot, maybe by a little. And then there are the beggars who trail after you like ducklings to a mother duck, asking for baksheesh. To the left, Scott is accosted by two shoeshine terrorists and a vendor, with another vendor dashing up from behind.
In a country with so many people and so little money, many things one takes for granted just don’t work. Expect hot water when you turn on the tap? Maybe, or maybe cold water, or maybe no water at all. Electricity is problematical. There are few women’s restrooms of any sort (women should be at home). Food safety is always suspect.
OK, so now put this all together – walking through choking air down a littered, grimy street with crazy traffic richocheting through the streets, horns blaring at 90+ decibles,and being assualted by an onslaught of humanity every step you take. You can see why India might make a bad first impression on some people.

What the Real India Experience is Like

Now, there are a couple of ways to deal with this. An approach preferred by many is to create a little first world bubble where ever they go – stay in international hotels with generators and backup water supplies and order beef hamburgers from room service. Take expensive a/c private cars to see the sights, returning at the end of the day for a dip in the hotel pool, a nice glass of French wine, and pick up some classy souvenirs at the gift shop. It’s easy, it’s comfortable, you see wonderful things, you get around most of the hassles listed above – but you miss 95% of what India is all about.

This isn’t the way we traveled.

The second approach is to jump right in and experience the country, traveling as a middle-class Indian might – on the trains and cycle rickshaws, staying in the guest houses, eating at the local restaurants. It’s an amazing kaleidoscope of a country – more like dozens of countries – with an amazing history still visible in the temples and palaces and forts from the last 1000 years. People are universally warm and friendly, even when they’re out to scam you – you’re a rich tourist, it’s part of the gig, you know it and they know it and you don’t really get scammed very much after the first few days. Traffic and everything else is chaotic, but the system is adapted to make do and work around the chaos. We were told many times during the trip, “In India, anything is possible” – and it almost always is. It’s fascinating, diverse, and very very inexpensive. The food is plentiful and tasty. It is a religious, family-oriented, non-materialistic, and generally very conservative country. People don’t have much, but most have the basics – food, water, shelter, education, access to basic medical care. If you can let yourself get over the noise and dirt and chaos , India is fabulous and truly like no place else in the world.

Next: A few days in Delhi before the Intrepid Rajasthan Tour

Sri Lanka – Tamil Tea

Sri Lanka – Tamil Tea

Sri Lanka Hill Country

Most of the hill country is planted in tea plantations – hills and mountains and steep slopes of tea shrubs. Historically, Sri Lanka had been a major coffee exporter, but then a blight killed off all the coffee trees in the 1860s, and tea was  brought in as an emergency substitute. It turns out that the Sri Lanka hill country has the perfect climate for tea, and Ceylonese became famous worldwide. It’s still one of their largest export earners.
We learned an amazing amount about tea production and tea pluckers during our time wandering through the hill country. Tea plants can grow to 30 feet tall, but they are kept to shrub height by a severe pruning every 4 years. A bush can produce for 50 years or more. Only the bud and top 2-4 leaves are plucked for tea (the fewer the leaves, the higher the grade). The bushes have to be plucked every 4-7 days. By hand. One the side of a steep mountain. It’s hard work, and the British weren’t able to convince many of the local Ceylonese (as they were then known) to become tea-pluckers. So they imported workers from Tamil Nadu, in southern India – and they have stayed and worked in the tea plantations ever since. The tea pickers are some of the poorest of the poor in Sri Lanka – they earn about $1.50/day. The women do all the plucking, the men do the pruning, terracing, and other heavy work. The absolute poverty line is either $1 or $2/day/person, according to the United Nations. A Tamil family of six, with two workers, lives on about 50 cents a day/person. (They do get basic medical care and schooling for free, and are often able to grow a small vegetable garden). They live in concrete row houses, one family to a room, that were built by the British early last century. Not an easy life.
We met tea workers and their families all along our trek. It was heartening to see all their kids dressed up in school uniforms, coming home from school. It was disappointing to see that about 70% of the students were boys. According to Bruno, the local schools only go up to 7th grade or so; to continue on means going to live in a larger town, boarding at a hostel. Most kids drop out at this stage – their familes don’t have the money to pay for the hostel, and don’t see the value in education when all you’re going to do is pick tea. Several kids we talked to said that they wanted to drop out and start working so they could help out their parents, who were getting old. And so the cycle continues.
We were followed by school kids for a good portion of the hike – foreigners were a relative rarity. And they were hoping to get their picture taken.
To finish our education about the tea industry, we took a tour through a Lipton factory – built by Sir Lipton himself. Although some of the machinery was newer, it looked every bit the 1900s tea factory. 

 Freshly picked leaves are partially deydrated by blowing air over them for 16 hours The leaves are then moved by hand and shoved down through a hole in the ceiling…. …into a grinding machine that pulverizes them and starts a fermentation process going   

The ground leaves are hand carried over to a sorter, that separates the stems from the leaves The ground tea leaves are moved by hand to a section of the factory floor, where they are piled for 20 minutes to ferment. This has to be timed rather exactly. Once they are perfectly fermented, they get baked for 100 minutes or so – again, this has to be done exactly. At this point, they have changed from green to black tea.   

The black tea is then run through several rounds of sorting, by size of the pieces. The size of the broken leaf dictates how it will be branded. The least valuable, the”dust”, is for the local market (it’s surprisingly difficult to get a good cup of tea in Sri Lanka, ironically).
After being sorted, the tea is scooped into large bags for shipment. The tea master at the facility tastes the tea from each batch, and grades its quality.

Next Page — Homestay

Previous Page — Trekking Tea Country