21 Days in Northwestern India

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Traveling with her former college roommate Louise, Patricia, known as BostonHarbor on the Fodor's Forums, tallied many a bargain in the cottage shops and open-air markets of India. Her 21-day journey included stops in Agra, Varanasi, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Delhi, and several sites in between. Here's her take on the wondrously frenetic energy of India.

1. Was there one place that didn't grab you instantly but that you had trouble leaving later?

When we first arrived in Jodhpur, we thought the city looked very similar to Jaipur and wondered why we hadn't gone to a place a bit more different. It turned out we had much more fun in Jodhpur than Jaipur. Because there are fewer tourists and there aren't any beggars, which makes walking through the streets a wonderful experience. There is only one major shopping bazaar where both locals and tourists shop, so you really feel part of the scene. We stopped and talked with local women who asked us to join them in the decision making.

2. Are tour guides a must for the cities you visited?

Guides help you save a lot of time when you are covering new territory. However, we really enjoyed the days when we wandered around by ourselves. Since English is spoken almost everywhere, you can always find your way back---albeit somewhat circuitously--with the infamous Indian directions.

3. Your description of a Varanasi side street brings to mind sensory overload. Was this a recurring feeling throughout your trip?

All of India is sensory overload---but that is not a bad thing---it's what makes India interesting. From the minute you step off the plane, the colors, smells, noises, the human and animal jostling, the avoidance of various hazards on the sidewalks all make you feel like a character in a video game. However, within a few days you are used to it and become part of the flow. Varanasi was particularly fabulous because the city looks much as it did a thousand years ago. Take away the electrical wires and the cell phones and nothing has changed.

4. Judging from the pictures of the hotels you stayed in, you must have felt like you were sleeping at the Taj Mahal. Which hotel provided the best all-around value?

The three Oberoi hotels where we stayed (Agra, Jaipur, and Udaipur), along with the Imperial (Delhi) and Taj Mahal (Bombay), were gorgeous and the staff was both gracious and solicitous. I particularly like the Oberoi policy of no tipping unless you wished to at the end of your stay. However, these hotels at high season are very expensive. The hotel that we believed was the best value during our trip was the Taj Hari Mahal in Jodhpur. The nightly rate at the time we booked was less than half of the Oberoi rate, but our room was the largest we had during our trip. The Taj Hari Mahal wins in the value category.

5. You seem to revel in the smaller cultural differences between India and the U.S. Which difference did you appreciate the most?

One of the things you notice immediately upon arrival in India is that Indians stare at tourists---and I mean stare. But you get used to it, and learn how to respond. One moment, now seared in my brain, occurred while walking through a street in Jodhpur. A motor scooter passed me with an entire family loaded on it. The young mother on the scooter turned her head toward me as she passed and stared intently at me. I looked her in the eye, smiled, and gave her a wave. As she turned the corner, she looked back and gave the most enthusiastic, beautiful smile I have ever seen. Staring is simply what they do. Smiling is what they will do when you make the first move.

6. You spent a good deal of time hunting high-end bargains. Do you have tips for fellow shoppers?

In addition to bringing an extra duffle bag in which to take home your treasures, I have several shopping tips:

·  Ship whatever you can. I shipped almost everything, and it was home when I arrived and I paid no duty. Most shops will delay shipping until a date you give them if you are worried about no one being at home to accept the package.

·  Bargaining is de rigueur and you will get good at it. Be very respectful of vendors and simply ask is that the best price you can offer me? You can ask this question a few times during your bargaining, particularly if it is an expensive item.

·  Pashmina will sell anywhere from $10-$200 and up. Go to a cottage - industry store and ask them to show you all the different types so that you can be a smarter shopper when in the markets.

·  Rather than trying to further reduce the unit price of a relatively inexpensive item, it's better if you can have four for the price of three.

·  If you love something and feel it is a good price, don't pass it up thinking you will get it cheaper. You may never see it again.

·  Look for great buys in unexpected places. My multi-colored tourmaline-faceted bead necklace, bought in a lobby gift shop, is one of my favorite pieces, and I got a great price.

·  Hundreds of shops have the word cottage or industries in their names so that you will think they are government shops. They aren't government shops, but that doesn't mean they are not good shops. I bought my Kashmiri rugs at one of these shops and negotiated a fabulous price. Make sure you sign the back of your rugs with your signature while the rug is in front of you before shipping.

·  When in Jodhpur or other export cities, go where the wholesale importers go. Ask the hotel concierge where they are. You can get great prices and stunning high-end products.

·  Do not beat yourself up because you did not bargain hard enough. It all evens out in the end, and no matter what you pay you are getting a better deal than at home.

·  Talk with the shopkeepers. They are the real entrepreneurs and have fascinating stories. You might also get to see the good stuff they don't put out for everyone.

Want to follow in Patricia's path? Click here for her full trip report.

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