India offers allure, beauty... and challenges

ndia's Golden Triangle cities of Agra, Delhi and Jaipur, as well as Jodhpur and Mumbai (Bombay), have abundant gifts for the adventurous but might be less appealing to novice travelers.

An estimated 250,000 Americans visit India each year, but travelers headed there need to be prepared.

The country demands a certain amount of patience and flexibility -- getting around the country and dealing with crowds, bumpy roads and local customs can be difficult.

Agents would be wise to book their clients through a tour operator. Once the troublesome logistics of travel in India are arranged, clients will be free to focus on the more positive aspects of the country.

The Indian town of Pushkar holds its five-day fair every November. According to Anne Stalter, custom travel consultant for Abercrombie & Kent, "You need to have a set itinerary. It's too confusing and chaotic [on your own]."

That chaos -- and the contradictions that go with it -- are part of the country's exotic allure, as well as its downside.

For example, India has the fifth-largest economy in the world, yet poverty is pervasive. Computer schools and cybercafes are numerous, yet its literacy rate is estimated at 52%. Despite the dire conditions many Indians live under, there is magic to be found.

On at least two occasions, flocks of uniformed schoolchildren came upon our group and couldn't stop waving and smiling at us. They didn't want anything from us, yet behaved as if we were handing out free ice cream.

Stalter said she was very taken with the Indian people and believes they are the country's greatest appeal.

"The main thing that grabbed me was the people. The people are very friendly and willing to share their history and culture," she said.

A traditional impediment to India tourism has been the lack of international flights into the country. That is in the process of changing. Now more than 35 international airlines operate into India, including United, which established daily flights into Delhi from London and Hong Kong.

Further boosting tourism has been the visibility India has gained with Americans in the past two years.

President Clinton's visit in March 2000 was the first trip to India by an American president since the Carter administration.

Stalter said Abercrombie & Kent has seen a rise in interest of travel to the country in the past eight months and attributed it to Clinton's visit.

Clinton visited again in April to view the damage from the January earthquake in Gujarat.

Despite the earthquake's terrible toll in lives and property, there was no discernable effect on the other regions of India.

In fact, two small earthquakes hit northern India while I was there, with no measurable damage. For the intrepid, India is not only a unique destination, it can be a life-changing experience.

Robert Arnett, author of "India Unveiled," wrote, "... during my second trip [to India] my life was transformed. Not only was the Indian subcontinent unveiled to me, but in the process, I discovered the true essence of my being."

While I wasn't fortunate enough to experience spiritual enlightenment during my two-week visit, I learned that India is full of surprises. Where else can you visit Mahatma Gandhi's apartment, guided by a woman who, as a child, sat on his lap?

How many other destinations offer countless beautiful temples, mosques and houses of worship? And where else can you see the Taj Mahal?

There is a trend in travel for "realistic" destinations, something more than a cosmetic, generic experience. For open-minded Westerners who want to experience a very different culture, India may be the ticket.

A friend told me of a couple who went to India on a vacation. While in a taxi en route from the airport to the hotel, they passed a cow relieving itself in the middle of the street.

The couple had the driver turn the taxi around. They headed back to the airport, leaving the country before even getting to the hotel. Obviously, they were not prepared for India.

There is no way to escape the bold and often grim realities of India. There will be sights and sounds that will forge their impressions on all who visit.

Stalter's advice to prospective travelers to India is, "Be prepared that it's different. There is such a culture shock."

To put your clients in the right mind-set, advise them of what they might experience there, such as:

• Extreme poverty.

• They will be besieged by beggars and hassled by hawkers selling everything from cheap ornaments to attractive handicrafts. Poor children also seek out Westerners, asking for pens, money or anything.

• Clients should be watchful of scams where taxi drivers, or "guides," working in concert with shop owners steer them to a specific shop.

• Female travelers should be aware that Indian men like to look at women, particularly exotic Western women. While the intentions are not malicious, the attention can be uncomfortable.

• On the other hand, the reactions of children to Westerners can be priceless. A child came upon our group and giggled with delight at something she had never seen before -- a woman's blonde hair.

• They will see lots of exotic animals. Animals are incorporated into everyday society. In addition to cows and dogs, it's not unusual to see camels, elephants and monkeys.

With so many animals and so little money to care for them, some are in poor condition. However, cows, sacred to Hindus, are treated incredibly well. In fact, there are cow hospitals that are almost an attraction unto themselves.

• Clients should use only bottled water and watch what they eat and drink. Even at recognized chain hotel properties, the water/ice might not agree with the Western stomach. Fruit that cannot be peeled also can be a problem. Stick to bananas and oranges.

But after accepting India's shortcomings, clients must be prepared to open their eyes and appreciate its differences with U.S. society.

As one of our guides pointed out, there is beauty even in the mundane details of everyday Indian life. Even the simple dress, the sari, makes Indian culture interesting and colorful.

"You've been here two weeks, have you seen any two women dressed alike?" the guide asked.

This report was prepared by Travel Weekly's Michael Ardizzone.

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