There's no going to India in half measures, and there's no foretelling how it will affect you
On our first full day in India, at the New Delhi train station, a tout tried to sucker my husband, Nick, and me into buying counterfeit tickets. Near the Red Fort of Old Delhi, some guy grabbed at the crotch of my intentionally modest salwarkameez. On the way back to our hotel, the rickshaw driver got lost, ultimately failing to find the place and demanding extra payment anyway.
I was no novice wanderluster. I'd been all over the planet, and India was the halfway mark of our yearlong round-the-world trip. From then on, I decided, anyone who messed with me was going to feel the full force of my seasoned traveler's fury. So the next morning, while Nick went shopping for books, I stayed inside, too scared and exposed to go outside by myself. Instead, to prove my mettle, I got into a fight with the officious hotel receptionist.
I hadn't come to India on any kind of Mission Enlightenment, but the funny thing about change is how it creeps up on you when you're busy acting like a brat. As soon as we left Delhi, the little kindnesses started: When I fell sick in the Lawrence of Arabia--worthy desert town of Jaisalmer, a restaurant owner named Rama became my temporary mother, easing my stomach pain with "desert cures" and my loneliness with long, intimate talks. In the whitewashed lakeside city of Udaipur, Nick and I met a pair of teenage art dealers, who, after selling us miniature paintings, discovered my love of Bollywood films and offered to take me to several, where they explained what was going on when the plots got too convoluted. I also mentioned my Bollywood obsession to the functionary who ran the 17th-century castle-cum-hotel in the village of Orchha; the next morning, a famous actor who lived nearby was waiting in the lobby for me. Such acts occurred almost daily, and their generosity took my breath away.
As people opened up to me, my fears of India's chaos and otherness fell away, as did my ridiculous you-wanna-piece-of-me mentality. I became downright promiscuous in my social interactions. I followed the little boys who spoke no English as they dragged us to a swimming hole. I walked with the prostitute who lived in a tiny shared room in the slums of Bombay (Mumbai). I discussed the merits of V. S. Naipaul and Rohinton Mistry with the booksellers along Bombay's Veer Nariman Road. I asked Jaipur's scammy rickshaw drivers their life stories. I accepted invitations to tea with the cousin of the tailor I met in Delhi. Some people were obvious creeps, and easily avoidable, and others wanted something in return. But more often than not, the graciousness carried no ulterior motive. The more I made myself available to what was around me, the more wonderfully weird opportunities presented themselves--to act in a Bollywood movie, to go on a Jain pilgrimage, to attend a private puja prayer ceremony.
When I arrived back in Delhi nearly two months later, I was dropped off near my hotel by the father of a girl I met on the train--daily kindness number 67--and as I hurried to meet Nick, who had gone to Varanasi while I went to Bombay, I marveled at how at home I felt. It was as clear as a pair of before and after snapshots, and I wondered if India hadn't perhaps changed me in some way, at least the way I travel. As Nick and I worked our way through Central Asia, Africa, and Europe, I saw just how deep those changes ran. The aspects of travel that once irritated me (endless queues, overcrowded minibuses) hardly fazed me, and the aspects that once intimidated me (touts, beggars, aggressively curious locals) became social events. I made friends everywhere, having unlikely adventures with African rap stars and Uzbek bakers. I wasn't sure how or why, but India had been a turning point in the trip.
Now that I'm back in the U.S., I see that India was also a turning point in my life. I've started engaging the random people I meet every day: the Yemeni counter guy at the deli, the old lady buying watermelon at the greengrocer, the grumpy fellow at the community garden across the street. I'm embarrassed by how giddily grateful these small interactions make me, but for some reason they fill me with a sense of life's wonder and of people's generosity. They also remind me that you needn't be abroad to find adventure. You just need to be open.
India, as easy as possible
When you haul your bleary self through the crowded New Delhi airport, there are moments of grace. Flight crews, custodial staff, or passengers' relatives will bow toward you in a gesture of greeting and respect. Namaste: Welcome to India, where extraordinary hospitality is the antidote to a traveler's confusion.
Getting there: Book plane tickets through a consolidator specializing in India. Be persistent-the agents may put you on hold or neglect to call you back, but they'll save you hundreds of dollars. Hari World Travel (212/997-3300) is the granddaddy, but also check smaller companies such as Abid Travel (877/779-2243), Tri-Star Travel (212/290-9500), or 4Lowfare.com (877/456-9327, 4lowfare.com, specializing in West Coast departures). Expect to pay $900 to $1,500 from New York to New Delhi. Fares peak in summer and late December. Add about $300 for transpacific flights departing from the West Coast.
When to go: Winter, from October to March, is the season of festivals, weddings, and pleasant weather. There's camel racing at the Pushkar Fair in November and at Jaisalmer's Desert Festival in February. The colorful Elephant March travels through Kerala in January. In the evenings you'll hear marching bands leading marriage processions. You're welcome to watch; you may even be invited to dance. Most of the country is unbearably hot from April to June, and hot and wet from July to September (monsoon season). If you must go in the hot months, head for Darjeeling and the foothills of the Himalayas. Tourismofindia.com and tsiindia.com have detailed information on festivals, weather, and travel planning.
Moving around: Reserve air and train travel within India before you arrive and as early as possible. Seats fill up quickly in a country with a population of more than 1 billion. You need not go on an escorted tour, but you should get help making arrangements; train tickets are especially complicated. Check if your consolidator sells domestic travel services. India-based Travel Spirit International (tsiindia.com) will book air and train tickets, tour guides, group bus tours, or private cars with drivers. TSI can also get double rooms in deluxe hotels in Agra and Delhi from $70 to $90 in winter. Rooms in Heritage Hotels, converted from palaces, start at $40.
How to dress: Wear loose, comfortable clothing that protects you from the sun. In December and January you'll need a light jacket (or something warmer, depending on how far north you go). Shorts will attract unwanted attention-to women for dressing immodestly and to men for appearing to have forgotten their pants. Wearing Indian clothes, which are well suited to the climate, is a sure way to endear yourself to locals. When visiting temples or shrines of any religion, dress conservatively. Women especially should cover their shoulders and legs. Shoes must be removed (or sometimes covered) before entering a temple or mosque. Follow the locals' lead. Indians are very tolerant of social blunders, especially if your intentions are good.
Health: Don't drink the water, order ice in your beverages, or eat unpeeled fruit-you will get sick. Bottled water is readily available. If you'd like to taste fresh gooseberries and custard apples, bring a bactericide such as Katadyn Micropur ($14 from REI, 800/426-4840, rei.com) to make a sterilizing wash. Those who get sick will be treated with great kindness. Restaurant staff will find you food your stomach can tolerate. Rehydrate by ordering nibu pani, lime seltzer with sugar and salt.
Shopping: The goods are amazing-silk paintings, embroidered fabrics, handmade paper--but you have to bargain. Indians wouldn't dream of doing otherwise. Politely suggest the price is just too high until, step-by-step, you and the seller patiently reach an agreement. It helps to pretend the fabulous exchange rate doesn't exist-every rupee needs to feel like a dollar. Don't buy anything at a shop where your driver or guide has a special connection; prices will be inflated to cover his kickback. If the bargaining wears you down, visit the state-run handicraft emporiums. Prices are fixed, quality is consistent, and the sales help isn't aggressive. Shops can ship back large items via UPS. Get insurance and verify that the shop is government approved.
Joining the locals: Visit a temple for the music and chanting of the morning sunrise ceremony or at the end of the evening, when the statues of the gods are given small beds and dressed for sleeping. Sing along with the audience at a Bollywood film in a large old-fashioned cinema. Shop the local market to see how experienced bargainers purchase everyday items.
Communication: Many people speak English, but not necessarily the same English you speak. An "in-suit" hotel room, for example, has a full private bath. Or you may have a long question-and-answer session with a waiter only to learn that exotic-sounding capsicum and lady's finger translate to green pepper and okra.
Supplies: Three things you really should bring: sunscreen, a flashlight with batteries (for when the electricity goes out), and toilet paper. It's available at most hotels but you don't want to get caught short on an outing. --Suzy Walrath