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DEAR TRIP COACH...
After years of saving my miles, I've finally booked a trip to visit a friend in Chennai [formerly Madras], South India. Although I'll stay with my friend, I'll be traveling alone most of the time. And, of course, the terrorist attacks in Mumbai are on my mind. Any advice? Laura McFarland, Rocky Mount, N.C.
What should I know about staying safe in India? November's events notwithstanding, India is generally very safe. Many Western women travel alone and encounter few problems. Occasionally you hear stories of an opportunist attempting a grope on a crowded bus, but that's rare. Follow the same precautions you would in any tourist destination, but be at ease and open to people. Indians tend to be extroverts and very inquisitive, so travelers of both sexes should expect lots of friendly conversation.
How should I dress to avoid bringing unwanted attention to myself? Leave the short, tight getups at home and you'll be fine. You'll see local women in everything from embroidered saris to T-shirts and knee-length skirts or shorts.
Chennai is right on the coast. What do women wear at the beach? Indian women splash around fully dressed in whatever they happen to be wearing. However, it's completely acceptable for foreign women to wear swimsuits, even bikinis, especially at beaches that are popular with tourists. Chennai's main stretch of sand, Marina Beach, is pretty, but it gets crowded. For miles of uninterrupted white sand, take a two-hour bus ride down the coast to the town of Mamallapuram (buses leave throughout the day from Chennai's Koyambedu bus stop and Guindy railway station, round trip from 50¢). While you're there, check out the famous Shore Temple, built in the 7th and 8th centuries right on the beach ($5). The ocean currents in south India are dangerously strong, so it's illegal to swim. Instead, people go to the beach to sunbathe and wade.
One of my biggest concerns is what to do about money in India. Should I take traveler's checks, cash, or credit cards—or should I use an ATM? ATMs are now commonplace in all but India's most rural locations, so just take a stash of cash to get yourself started, and use your ATM card for the rest of the trip. Credit cards aren't accepted in most places; unless you plan to buy some high-end items or stay at a plush hotel, chances are you won't have much occasion to rack up a bill.
I plan to do some shopping and my guidebooks say to haggle, but I've never done that. How do I go about it? First and foremost, act confident—even if you're not. If you look green, shopkeepers will hit you with exorbitant prices. Let the vendor quote you a number, and then come back with a counteroffer between a quarter and a half of that. If you're nearing an agreement but the seller is asking a bit more than you want to pay, state your final offer and start walking away. More often than not, that'll clinch the deal.
I've been to several countries with extremely scary bathrooms. What should I expect to find in India? While not up to our sparkling standards, most bathrooms you'll come across will be sufficiently maintained and have the Western-style toilets, toilet paper, and sinks you're used to. In some lower-end hotels and restaurants, you may encounter one of the infamous Asian thrones (no seat, just a hole and two platforms for your feet), but these are blessedly on the way out.
What is there to see in Chennai? There are three major sites that should be at the top of your list. Kapaleeswarar Temple, in Chennai's Mylapore neighborhood, is a stunning complex of intricately carved gateways, vast courtyards, and shrines (Kutchery Rd., mylaikapaleeswarar.com, free). There are four official poojas, or worship times, in the main temple each day, and priests at the smaller shrines lead services on request. You don't have to be Hindu to take part; poojas are open to everyone. Nearby, you have to behold the towering, bright-white Santhome Cathedral Basilica, a Gothic structure built in the 19th century over the tomb of St. Thomas—walk around to the back of the courtyard and go through the underground passage to see the crypt (Santhome High Rd., santhomebasilica.com, free). The Vivekananda Museum, behind Marina Beach, gives a gripping account of the life of the Hindu sage Swami Vivekananda, a 19th-century spiritual leader known for introducing Hindu philosophy and yoga to the West (Kamarajar Salai, S. Beach Rd., free).
People keep telling me I'll get sick during the trip. Is this because of bad hygiene or exposure to new foods? Is there any way to avoid it? Stomach upsets abroad are most often due to bacteria in the ecosystem that are different from what we encounter at home. Contaminated food is less often to blame. Some doctors believe that pro-biotic dietary supplements, such as yogurt, can help ward off turista, so ask your internist for advice. That said, don't be afraid to try new foods while you're in India. People often make the mistake of assuming it's safer to eat at ultraclean-looking restaurants than to buy food from a street vendor. The truth is, while the restaurant might seem spotless, you can't see the state of the kitchen. But if you pass a guy making fresh samosas in a clean boiling vat on the sidewalk, you can confidently join the line at his stand. Just-cooked hot meals are your safest bets.
I've only had one Indian meal in my life, but I'm excited to experiment. What specialties would you recommend in Chennai and the surrounding area? South India is famous for vegetarian buffets known as "meals," which are usually served in no-frills restaurants (just look for the MEALS READY sign in the window). Grab a seat, and a waiter will dole out rice, roti (bread), pappadams (huge wafer crisps), dhal (stew made with lentils), various curries, pickles, chutney, curd (something like cottage cheese), and salad. Meals are often served on a banana leaf; you mix the various dishes together and eat everything with your hands, using the roti as a utensil. The entire feast generally costs about $1. You'll pay about half that for the perfect fast food, masala dosa, a large crispy pancake that comes with a vegetable stuffing and sides of sambar (stewed tomatoes and lentils) and coconut chutney. Chennai-based chain Hotel Saravana Bhavan is a local favorite for its meals and dosa (011-91/44-2371-2577, saravanabhavan.com, meals from 50¢). Go to Kalyan Bhavan Biryani for the best biryani, a rice stew served with chicken, lamb, or vegetables (424 Pantheon Rd., biryani from 50¢). Fish, such as pomfret and kingfish, are also a south Indian specialty. Dakshin, in the ITC Hotel Park Sheraton & Towers, makes some of the best coconut fish curry around (TTK Rd., 011-91/44-2499-4101, entrées from $5.50).
I'm thinking of taking a day trip or two to the state of Tamil Nadu. What towns do you recommend? Eighty-five miles from Chennai is Pondicherry, a former French colony with a Gallic influence in its architecture and cooking. In Thanjavur, about 190 miles southwest of Chennai, don't miss the Brihadishwara Temple, a standout example of Chola-period architecture, with dancing figures carved into its façade and a tower that's more than 200 feet tall. To the west of Chennai, the town of Kanchipuram has at least five major Hindu temples; it's also known for its bright silk saris and scarves woven with silver and gold threads. Finally, check out the village of Kanadukathan, in Chettinad, a region celebrated for its spicy fare made with whole red chilies, star anise, tamarind, cinnamon, and cloves. In the early 1900s, the area was settled by wealthy traders, many of whom built enormous mansions that are still standing. One of these, Chettinadu Mansion, has been converted into a hotel, so you can get an up-close look at how the glamorous life was once lived in these parts (TKR St., 011-91/45-6527-3080, from $85).