As a relatively regular visitor to the Indian sub continent on political, commercial or military business many friends ask me for some tips when they are planning a trip.
I never visit any country, regardless of where it is without being part tourist. It is easy to look back on a life of business travel to find you saw nothing experienced nothing & made no friends. An easy mistake to make in the modern world.
I therefore make some observations for those interested travellers to make up their own mind.
I must declare an interest, l love India warts & all.
In no order of priority then.
In my experience the people are relentlessly cheerful & colourful, it matters not it seems where they stand in the somewhat formulaic hierarchy. Moreover take no notice of BBC celebrity historians or documentary presenters, Indians outside the political world take a not dissimilar view of the Raj to that which we take of the Roman Empire, like the curate’s egg it was good in parts. The British mapped India, built railways, sewage & irrigation systems, introduced wide spread tea planting, gave the current India parliamentary democracy & the greatest bonus of all English as one of the official languages (the sub continent has fifteen hundred languages & dialects). The armed forces are on the British model as are most hospitals.
In short therefore, the British are generally well regarded.
The English language gives us a magnificent opportunity to make friends at most levels outside the poor rural areas. Even then you will be made embarrassingly welcome by their generosity.
The Indian sub continent is massive, like America the indigenous population vary, don’t mistake perfect English for a mutually shared view of the world.
It is always dangerous to generalise but in the main the people of the subcontinent are cheerful, positive, colourful & fatalistic. Like many hot places the pace is slower. This is universally true whether it be southern Europe or the United States south of the Mason Dixon line. The gap is there separating rural & city life. You have to just accept it, frustrating though it sometimes can be. Religion plays a big part in the lives of the population & there are many of them.
Bone up on them, there is a terrible temptation in Britain to assume that the sub continent’s various religions are somehow broadly the same, like divisions of Christianity. This kind of ignorance can cause offence. Make an effort.
The Indian experience
As a tourist India is a place you experience, you soak it up through the pores. It is more of a time capsule than a destination. You can be absorbing modern Indian society in a Bangalore bar one day, enjoying 1930s Raj in the Royal Bombay Yacht Club another should you be fortunate enough to be a member or find your way down the Delhi Rajasthan road where snake charmers, fakirs & dancing bears transport you to a pre Raj era.
You will find wealth & squalor side by side. It is essential to leave your western liberal prejudices behind. Far too many TV travellers fail to do this. You cannot put a western template on India or its history. So don’t try. You will embarrass your hosts if you carry an unnecessary ostentatious burden of post colonial guilt around with you.
You can get a driver for the day inexpensively by European standards. He will know his patch & can get better prices for you on presents for home.
An ideal combination is a Hindu guide & Sikh driver. Sikhs make safer drivers as they are less fatalistic about crashing.
There are still Raj ‘sahib’ prices, a good guide is essential. Your hotel concierge will put you right.
Befriend him if you can. Germans often fail to do this & still click their fingers. That will get you nowhere.
Travel on trains where you can. It is part of the experience. Your concierge will send the boy to get the tickets, you won’t manage it because queuing is something they never picked up from the Raj.
Travel first class always, the air conditions is essential. Food on the hoof will do you no harm, it will be freshly cooked. As always be punctilious on water, make sure it is genuine & avoid ice.
A bottle of whisky is always welcome as a gift. With the exception of Sikhs it will be passed on as currency not drunk.
The British/Sikh bond is particularly strong, forged over many generations. But the British have a strong bond with all the martial races. We have fought side by side in so many battles against a common foe.
The Taj Mahal is one of the ‘must sees’ but these days very crowded & rather run down. The Golden Temple in Amritsar is another wonder of the world but these & many other fabulous places are too wide spread to do in one visit.
Don’t try & ‘do’ India in one visit, impossible, it is just too vast. Stick to a schedule.
Obviously it is hot. So daytime casual dress is essential. That doesn’t mean dress like a tramp.
Casual can still be smart. DON’T DO SHORTS IN THE RESTAURANT. It will earn you well disguised contempt.
Look around, if jacket & tie is worn by locals in the evening, do likewise.
Stout walking shoes are the right thing most of the time.
Cotton floppy hats at all times in the sun, India is not the Mediterranean, you will turn into a lobster in no time even if it is hazy.
Don’t forget the after bite ammonia stick.
Tip the same % as you would in England.
I always tip a concierge half up front half later.
How to insult an Indian concierge? Ask him if he speaks English!
Don’t over tip it’s vulgar, keep plenty of small change.
A bottle of whisky is a very good present for all but Muslims.
A few anecdotes ( parables?)
I was on the veranda of a very pukka hotel in Agra & ordered a pot of tea. The major-domo was a Sikh, awesomely attired, I ordered the tea, he passed on the order to an underling, also pretty high in the pecking order. Tea never arrived, the order gave up steam half way down the promotional ladder.
The big guy in the turban on the door or gate is probably an ex NCO in the Indian army.
They salute like us, not in the half hearted theatrical style of our American cousins, gentlemen remember your days in the school corps, return it right & make an immediate ally.
India is not Italy, Delhi is not Florence. Rushing about clicking your camera is not the way in India.
The pace is painstakingly slow. As is New York in comparison with Sante Fe or London with Kilkenny.
They don’t do ‘hurry’ get your head around it before you set off or it will drive you mad. Try a practice run in an Tipperary village.
I have sometimes written or e mailed to an Indian hotel or club six or seven times to confirm a table or room booking. Mostly they don’t do confirmation, it just isn’t part of their protocol. I found the same phenomenon in Washington! Just keep the copy of the correspondence from your end.
The non stop flushing lavatory in our Agra hotel prompted four visits to the desk to no avail, I hadn’t projected enough sense of urgency; my Indian chum called for me later, I explained the problem.
He held the desk clerk upside down & shook him by the ankles (metaphorically) the lavatory was fixed in minutes, no offence was taken by the clerk, you see, he didn’t really think it was important because I asked him in the same way Sgt. Wilson (Dad’s Army) would have done.
When you get to your Indian airport destination you will be met by a customs officer, he will take ages scanning your passport. You will wonder why. It is just his way of proving he exists in a nation of hundreds of millions. Not to you but to himself. Hierarchy is considered extremely important. He is marking his territory.
We were entertained in rural India by a small farmer & his family, a wonderful experience, we were then shown around the village which attracted a fair crowd of children, we called for tea with the local squire & mildly reprimanded for not making him our natural host.
Taking the spouse? India is not for everyone. It is a marmite experience. My wife & I simply adore the place. But if you go expecting it to be like Europe or America but hotter, it ain’t.
Bugs, snakes & Delhi belly. Take loads of whisky & Imodium. If you can afford it, fly business class.
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file