As I mentioned in the last post, I decided to figure this India trip on the fly, refusing to make any concrete plans that might hinder my freedom to do whatever I wanted. The day before I left, I ordered a copy of the Lonely Planet India on Amazon to be delivered the next day (which it did, five hours before my flight). Armed with a book about India and a couple recommendations from friends, I felt confident that the trip would work itself out. Unfortunately, within 24 hours, I lost the Lonely Planet and was back to square one.
The original plan was to explore Varanasi, a city on the Ganges River that is among the holiest for Hindus, and Rajasthan, a region in Northern India known for beautiful landscapes, brightly-colored clothes and architecture, and a rich culture dating back thousands of years. I would take a bus from Pokhara to Varanasi and cross from Nepal to India by land. After a few days, I would fly to New Delhi and follow a path called the Golden Triangle, starting in Delhi, moving on to Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal, and Jaipur, known as the pink city for its reddish-hued stucco buildings, before returning to New Delhi.
After college, my brother worked on a nature documentary in India and spent a week in Varanasi, which he claimed is the coolest place in the world. With such a strong recommendation, I felt I had to go. Given that Varanasi is in the northern part of India, the Golden Triangle felt like a natural fit for the second half of the trip. As with most of my plans, this one quickly fell apartment when I decided to take a bus from Pokhara to Kathmandu, book a flight from Kathmandu to Varanasi, and figure things out from there.
The more I spoke with people, however, it sounded like Delhi was just another giant metropolis and Jaipur a slightly smaller metropolis. Coming to the conclusion that I didn’t know anything, I decided to let Ashaya, who attended boarding school in India, decide my itinerary. She suggested two days in Varanasi, back to Delhi for the Taj Mahal, and down to Udaipur, a small and beautiful city of palaces situated on a lake and surrounded by rolling hills. With a tentative itinerary and two days before my trip, all that was left was to book it.
Having made no reservations of any kind, I spent the day before my flight trying to book a flight from Varanasi back to New Dehli, a round-trip ticket to Udaipur, and a flight back to Kathmandu. India actually has a fledgling low-cost airline industry, with several carriers offering cheap flights around the country. Having talked to a few people who’d done the trip before, I assumed booking travel would be relatively straightforward. Sadly, as with most simple tasks in India, that was not the case.
I first tried to book a flight on Yatra.com, India’s equivalent of Kayak, searching for the lowest fares across the four major airlines in India. Having found a cheap flight from Varanasi to New Dehli, I entered my credit card information, only to be informed that they only accept international credit cards five days in advance of booking, which wasn’t going to help me book a flight in three days. I tried to book directly on website of the airline, SpiceJet, which brought me all the way through the process, including entering my credit card, before bringing me back to the main website and forgetting all about the reservation it was supposed to be processing. Feeling a little like Sisyphus, I began to doubt the wisdom of winging a trip to India.
Having decided to punt on that Delhi flight, I went back to Yatra to book the rest of my flights. I found a great deal on a round trip flight to Udaipur – 8,000 rupees there and back. When I selected the flight, a notice popped up on the screen telling me that, in the time between selecting the flight and bring it up, the price had increased by 2,000 rupees. “Son of a bitch,” I thought. So I decided to wait a bit and check again. Fifteen minutes later I found the flight again for 8,000 rupees. When I click purchase, the same thing happened. I couldn’t help but be amused that an Indian e-commerce website was haggling with me the same way as a shopkeeper selling knockoff watches.
Regardless, it didn’t matter, since every site selling airline tickets in India seemed to be broken. Sensing my desperation, Ashaya told me she’d take care of it and called her ticket-agent cousin, who booked four flights for me on SpiceJet for a total of $380. And with that, I finally had the beginnings of a plan.
Unfortunately, my trip to India got off to a characteristically rocky start when my Air India flight from Kathmandu to Varanasi was first delayed by four hours, and subsequently cancelled altogether. Fortunately, my friend Ashaya called her uncle, Kamal Rana, who works at the airport to guide me through security and ensure I made my flight to New Dehli. This was the first of several saves that made my India trip go much more smoothly than it otherwise might have.
Mr. Rana met me at the airport, shepherded me through immigration and security, bought me coffee, and sent me on my way. Aboard the flight, I sat next to an older Canadian couple, Doug and Estela, also trying to get to Varanasi. Doug struck up a conversation, and we started talking about our respective trips. Once a year, Doug went hunting with a group of American and Canadian guys. One of the America guys had a form of cancer for which an experimental treatment was available in Canada. When he asked Doug to connect him with a doctor in Canada, Doug happily obliged. In return, the American, who worked for Delta Airlines, offered him and Estela first-class, round-trip tickets to anywhere in the world. So they started preparing for a month-long trip through India, with a five-day stopover in Nepal.
Over the course of the two-hour flight, we covered a lot of ground. Doug inherited a farm from his grandfather in Canada, and he and Estela, who is originally from Colombia, bred and raised racehorses. They recently bought a 20-acre farm two hours north of Bogota and were turning it into a ranch and guesthouse for people looking to experience the lush Colombian countryside. I said I’d never been to Colombia, and showed him the places I’d lived on the Air India “Where We Fly” map. When I told him I was in business school, he warned me not destroy the world economy and take advantage of people for financial gain, which I happily obliged.
Before we left, we’d been assured that we would be put on a flight to Varanasi early the following morning. When we deplaned, the Varanasi refugees coalesced, growing to 20 by the time we found out what we needed to do. Each airport employee we asked gave us contradictory instructions, ultimately leading us to leave the airport, take a staircase to the second floor, and re-entering it at the departures terminal. After one guy told us to go back the way we came, Doug mused “Kafka would appreciate this.” There were two Germans in their twenties, each traveling alone, a Dutch family of four who were midway through a four-month trip through India, an older Czech couple that were starting their fourth consecutive month-long India trip and talked about how much had changed from 25 years ago, when they first traveled to the subcontinent, and a handful of others.
When we finally arrived at the Air India customer service desk, it was pandemonium. We were not the only flight that had been cancelled, and people were screaming. The Czech guy, who looked like Mr. Magoo, immediately stepped up as the de facto leader of the group, and reported that we were all going to be re-booked on an already-overbooked flight the following morning. At that point, the Dutch couple decided to cut their losses and head north instead. In the ensuing commotion, I found another airline – IndiGo – with flights the following day for $80. So once we were back at the terrible hotel Air India put us up at, Doug called the travel agent who organized his trip and the three of us booked another flight to Varanasi.
The next morning, we flew out without any problems, short of a three-hour fog delay that left us grounded on the tarmac. I caught a ride into the city with Doug and Estela, where they gave me a postcard of their Colombian getaway and bid me adieu.
In the next post, I’ll talk about Varanasi and beyond.
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