Generally each year we've gone to Western Europe, rented apartments in three different cities (London, Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, Florence, Madrid, Sevilla, Barcelona) for a week or ten days each, and immersed ourselves in the art, the culture, the history and the food. Often we've had carefully chosen guides for a day to go beyond the tourist highlights and give us a much broader understanding of what we were seeing and experiencing. We've never used a travel agency.
India was going to be different. We knew going in we needed expert guidance in the planning. There was so much to see and we'd be traveling between hotels (and palaces and havelis, as it turns out) every two or three days. We also knew we'd need expert guidance daily while we were there, just for the sake of health and safety and efficiency. I truly believe you cannot do in even 40 or 50 days, in India specifically, what we did, quite comfortably in 30 days, without a guide and a driver. (And good drivers are critical! It is absolutely insane for a Westerner to even think about driving in India.)
This travel agent is remarkable. She fully understood what we wanted to do, and who we were, and what this trip meant to us. The other agencies we were initially working with quickly fell away in the competition. When you are spending $30K on a trip (my wife, our daughter and myself; two rooms each night; with airfare, dinners and incidentals; 11 cities including 5 nights in Nepal), you need more than one expert to choose from in the planning. We initially enlisted three agencies. Over about three weeks, our agent quickly became our sole expert.
The trip far exceeded our high expectations. We've been back home for two days and it will be at least two months before I begin to process the full experience.
India and Nepal are most wonderful and welcoming countries, with amazingly wonderful and welcoming people. By far the most memorable and enjoyable part of the trip was being with our daughter. She's East Coast; we're West Coast. We don't see each other nearly as much as we'd like to. My wife and I will be a very young 70 this year. My wife was never going to even consider India until I realized she was serious about that and decided I would have to go alone - at which point our daughter said she'd go, at which point my wife (with trepidation) came on board as well. This took more than a little bravery on my wife's part, and it clearly required that this trip absolutely had to be first class and very well-planned. Our agent delivered.
What we saw and experienced in art and history and religion was incredible. The most memorable experiences though were with "local people" in their homes and around village fire pits, having dinner and cooking classes; in their temples, learning about their religions; and in their villages seeing how very modest life is in rural India, and how very warm and welcoming the people are. I cannot imagine this being something that most travel agencies even try to deliver. Our agent did.
In northern India and Nepal these days I think you have two choices. You can go in the winter as we did and deal with the air pollution. Or you can go in the summer and deal with the heat and rain and mosquitoes. The only thing I would do differently is include a few days on a beach in southern India, around day 10 and day 20, specifically for a good break with some fresh air.
We had a fantastic time in Nepal, but the day we left the pollution was so bad they were cancelling and postponing air flights (as ours was) due to very limited visibility, i.e., fog, heavily laden with air pollution. The Himalayas have the same effect on northern India and Nepal as the Sierra does on California's Central Valley: until a storm comes through the pollution just settles in.
Our agent arranged our visit through a large, impressive local agency in India so that we had expert guides and drivers, with very high standards. With all the travelling we did, having the same driver/guide combination for several days at a time (nearly two weeks with one excellent driver), gave us a very welcomed continuity and comfort level. And they kept us safe and healthy. (Despite all the forewarnings of inevitability, the three of us over 30 days experienced no "Delhi belly"!)
We were somewhat prepared in our knowledge of history and religion. I know I must have seemed rude to our guides at times, as I would wander off to look at something new during some lengthy (10-15 minute) dissertation. Standing at the gate does not interest me. There's just too much to see! Their knowledge was encyclopedic and impressive, but there's only so much one can absorb. I have Wikipedia at night for better learning all the names and dates. I think I would be much clearer with some guides at the onset that I was mostly interested in just a brief introduction and orientation. No matter how well-prepared you are, it is all new and often overwhelming. The guides were absolutely essential in getting us around and showing us what we wanted and needed to see. But we were there to see things, and we would ask questions as we began to appreciate what we were being shown.
As we travelled with our guides, it was obvious that they were all well-respected "locals." This was impressive. In all cases, they earned our respect and gratitude.
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