When my friend invited me to celebrate our birthdays by taking a trip, choosing India was not on our radar. We’re the same age for two weeks of the year and decided to plot a dual celebration somewhere we’d never been before. A number of destinations seemed very attractive and we tried each of them on for fit. To our complete surprise we found ourselves tentatively inching toward India.
There are a lot of ways to go about visiting India, but neither of us was particularly keen on taking a guided tour. We’d both worked for various university employers in a number of foreign countries during our professional lives, so we felt comfortable with foreign travel. We were both used to being independent and self-sufficient. And after the recent birthday, we prided ourselves that our status as seniors did not mean over-the-hill. We indisputably held the necessary life skills.
On the other hand, India would be a first-time destination for both of us. As we mulled over the learning curve our preparation would have to take, we had to admit we were starting from the beginning. Neither of us knew very much about India.
How significant were language differences? How safe was it for two seniors to strike out on their own without any contacts? It’s a big country—how reliable was train travel, for example? The more we thought about it, the bigger our quandary grew.
Then we discovered a guided tour that was sort of like the introductory sampler some restaurants serve. We pondered an appetizer platter that served up the Golden Triangle of India—Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra—and decided that was the dish for us. If the 9-day short version appealed to us, we’d go back for more.
Educating Ourselves to Experience India
My default mode was the educator’s approach to a foreign country—I scoured the libraries in town to find every last movie about India. Don’t do this, by the way. Instead, go to some top-notch travel blogs and get their recommendations! One of my favorites is the Canada-based Breathe, Dream, Go, but there are a number of really good sites to choose from.
We began our crash course with a series of filmed documentaries. The first set turned out to be something of an outsider’s orientation, being filmed by a Brit who spent far too long with the cameras focused on him instead of the sites of India. But there were many others to choose from. We also saw several different versions of the Mahatma Gandhi biography, each having a distinctly different political slant.
In lighter moments we watched a series of Bollywood productions. It’s probably not cool to admit how much we loved the happy endings. Too many film makers string out their plots by moving from one catastrophe to another and nobody gets to be very happy, at least not for long. But not in Bollywood! You can bet that a troop of beautiful youths will break out in song and dance at climactic moments throughout the movie and that nobody you care about dies in the end.
It was fun to see their version of Jane Austen, Bride and Prejudice, and of course we watched Slumdog Millionaire, Monsoon Wedding, A Million Dollar Arm, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. And then there were the American-style wannabes, those family sitcoms that are just as embarrassing to watch in the Indian culture as they are in the American.
From deep within the recesses of the library I also found a collection of movies that probably wouldn’t be on any blogger’s list. They were deeply allegorical in the dark European tradition and required a certain level of understanding about historical issues and cultural nuances. While sometimes a little tedious, they did add an interesting dimension.
A New Hip or an Indian Visa – Which is Harder to Get?
My traveling companion’s biggest preparation hurdle was having a hip replaced and healed in time. My biggest hurdle was getting an Indian visa.
My friend wisely gave the gimpy hip plenty of time to heal. At four months out, I thought I’d given my visa plenty of time to arrive, too. Admittedly, I had made an error on the application, but I immediately alerted the visa agency my tour company had recommended we use and explained the problem. They were masterfully calming and said that such an error hardly signified and not to worry.
That was true, as things turned out. Nothing I did right or wrong seemed to make any difference whatsoever. My visa was on the slow track. By mid summer I realized that getting a visa to India in time was not only going to be my biggest hurdle, but accomplishing it was completely and utterly out of my hands.
My friend didn’t need a passport until we boarded the plane, but the India Consulate returned it with a nice new visa page two months in advance.
I had indicated on my application that I needed my passport back in time for a quick trip to Canada for an important family event before leaving for India. A week before I had to leave for Canada, the India visa was still floating around in some cosmic nebulae at the Indian Consulate.
I went into panic mode and paid the hefty fees to expedite a second time-limited passport, (Grrr!) which arrived in the nick of time. And all the while I was out of the country, I had no idea if the India Consulate had spit out my passport with a valid visa inside, which would be arriving by US post in my absence, or whether my passport was chewed up and ingested into some kind of bureaucratic sludge pile where it would fulminate indefinitely.
The immediate issue was whether or not to pack my suitcase or whether to call the tour company and prostrate my body while begging for a later tour date. (Well, I knew that wasn’t going to work! I’d just have to eat my losses! But I was prepared to grovel in my attempt to save the trip!)
Then, one cloudless day, the passport with the India visa quietly arrived on my doorstep. I tried to calm myself.
When we boarded the plane for India, my friend sported a lovely new hip and I clutched a lovely new visa.
Half-way Around the World
One of the psychological preparations for a trip to India occurs when you realize the country is exactly half way around the world. In the northern hemisphere there’s nothing further away. If that hasn’t sunk in, let me say it another way: It takes a very long time to get to India, even cruising through the air at 570 mph.
If I could redo our itinerary, I’d break up the two marathon flights, first from the US to Heathrow and next from London to Delhi. I’d opt for a layover in London with time for some theatre, a handful of concerts, and a few sessions in our favorite museums before heading out to India.
Don’t underestimate jet lag’s impact on the senior body. It’s real, and it’s debilitating. Next time …….. a layover!