YOUR VACATION IN LIGHTS
On the Trail of John, Paul, George and a Tiger
Barbara Esstman of Fairfax is the latest contributor to our "Your Vacation in Lights" feature, in which we invite Travel section readers to share the dish about their recent trips. It's a big, confusing travel world out there, and you can help your fellow travelers navigate it. Your hot tip could be the next guy's day-maker; your rip-off restaurant, the next family's near miss. To file your own trip report -- and become eligible to win a digital camera --see the fine print below.
THE TRIP: Fourteen days in India, specifically Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Rishikesh and the Ranthambhore National Park and tiger preserve -- with a side trip to Kerala.
WHEN: March, in time for the Hindu festival of Holi and the Jaipur elephant festival.
WHO: Myself and six other very nice people I'd never met before but greatly enjoyed.
PLANNING: I signed on with Biotrek Adventure Travels of Warrenton and showed up on time for the flight. Company owner Sunny Reynolds always accompanies groups of fewer than 10 people so they don't have to worry about every little thing . . . or even think, for that matter. Reynolds also plans for travelers' special interests -- in my case, pashmina shawls, Rajasthan jewelry and a salwar kameez, the loose pants and tunic combo worn by women in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
COST:$5,400, for all flights, accommodations, tours, some meals and ground transportation. The week-long extension in Kerala was an additional $1,800.
HIGHLIGHTS: The Taj Mahal is not one of the New Seven Wonders for nothing. But the Red Fort in Agra, the Amber Fort in Jaipur, the Jantar Mantar observatory, the Gandhi museum in Delhi, the markets and festivals, and the people themselves all deserve awards of some sort.
COOLEST ATTRACTION: The daily evening prayer ceremony called aarti, held in Rishikesh, sometimes called the world capital of yoga, where the Beatles visited their guru. We purchased leaf boats holding marigolds, roses, incense and candles. As the music rang and chimed, we floated our offerings on Mother Ganga (the River Ganges), the small lights bobbing along the current.
WHAT I'D DO DIFFERENTLY: In Kerala, I'd move into an ayurvedic treatment room and never leave. The healing technique is said to have been invented here 5,000 years ago, and most good hotels have complete facilities.
MOST DIFFICULT ADJUSTMENT: Besides not falling off my camel or elephant, remembering to brush my teeth with bottled water and not eat anything raw and without a peel. "Delhi Belly" is claimed to be the world's fastest weight-loss technique, but I stayed healthy.
I GRITTED MY TEETH HARDEST WHEN . . . we failed to see a tiger at Ranthambhore, though we did hear the deer-call warning and saw footprints and busloads of gleeful tourists who'd just had a lengthy sighting.
IT MADE IT ALL WORTH IT WHEN . . . after hiking down a cliff in the Himalayan foothills, we reached our tents on the banks of Ganges, so close to the headwaters that it was safe to drink the water. After rafting the river accompanied by a guide singing Nepalese love songs, I rinsed off in a mat-enclosed area in the forest, with birds singing all around.
FAVORITE FOODS: The Oberoi Amarvilas Hotel in Agra features a lamb and apricot curry that would be worth the flight alone, even if the Taj weren't visible from your table. The fish curry in Kerala also was wondrous, and the chai was great everywhere, as was the yogurt, especially when sprinkled with a little sugar and fresh-ground ginger.
DON'T FORGET TO PACK: Tissues, Wet Ones and small bottles of Purell. Indian paper products leave much to be desired.
NEXT UP: A spring trip to Morocco. Now that I've gotten my camel-riding skills up to snuff, I'd like to try the Sahara. Then again, I wouldn't mind going back to India; there's still so much I have yet to see.
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