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Backpack & Budget

Small Secrets, Big Truths of India Travel

September 01, 1996|LUCY IZON

"India is far from the easiest country in the world to travel around. It can be hard going, the poverty will get you down, Indian bureaucracy would try the patience of even a Hindu saint, and the most experienced travelers find themselves at the end of their tempers at some point in India. Yet it is all worth it."

"India: Travel Survival Kit" by Lonely Planet is one of the guidebooks that I receive the most positive feedback about. And it's the candid comments, such as this cautious introduction in the recently released sixth edition, that help to make it so valuable.

Once you get over the financial hump of just getting to the country, India can be easy on your budget. Here's what the seven authors of the guidebook found: "If you scrimp and save, stay in dormitories or the cheapest hotels, always travel second class on trains, and learn to exist on dhal and rice, you can see India on less than $7 a day."

But traveling that tight won't suit every budget traveler's style. If you want to stay in reasonable hotels, eat in regular restaurants and travel in second class most of the time but in first class for long overnight trips, the authors say, "India could cost you something like $15 to $25 per day on average."

It's not just the price that draws curious backpacking adventurers; it's the rich diversity of the country. It's the sites--the soft sandy beaches of Goa; elephants on the streets of Jaipur; the mystic mornings at Varanasi, where hundreds of pilgrims bathe in the Ganges at sunrise; and Dharamsala, the home of the exiled Dalai Lama of Tibet.

Most guidebooks will lead you to the major sites, but this one will tell you what you are getting into. In addition to being packed with information from medical warnings to suggestions for economical lodging in government bungalows, it warns you of the obstacles and suggests how to deal with them.

One change you'll likely encounter is baksheesh--more than a tip, it's that small amount of money you are going to have to constantly come up with just to get things done. It may not always seem fair, but avoiding it could be more problematic. They also suggest, "If you are going to be using something repeatedly, an initial tip will ensure the standards are kept up."

Touts can be another challenge to your patience. "Very often they are the rickshaw-wallahs who meet you at the bus or railway station. The technique is simple. They take you to hotel A and rake off a commission for taking you there rather than to hotel B. The problem with this is that you may well end up not at the place you want to go to, but at the place that pays the best commission. Some very good, cheap hotels simply refuse to pay the touts and you'll then hear lots of stories about the hotel you want being 'full,' 'closed for repairs,' 'no good any more' or even 'flooded.' Nine chances out of 10 they will be just that--stories."

On a more positive note, touts can be useful: "If you arrive in a town when some big festival is on, or during peak season, finding a place to stay can be very difficult. Hop in a rickshaw, tell the driver in what price range you want a hotel and off you go."

When I was in India, a young couple and their rickshaw driver were half-way to a tourist site when trouble over their fare developed. The Lonely Planet guide suggests that this wasn't an isolated incident.

"He's punting on the hope that you are not well acquainted with correct fares and will overpay. . . . Always settle the price beforehand," the book suggests.

"India: Travel Survival Kit" (Lonely Planet, $24.95) is 1,150 pages and includes 205 maps, a color section on India's religions, historical and cultural information, plus details on national parks and wildlife reserves.

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