Over lunch with a couple of friends not long ago, I mentioned I was going to Kolkata to work on something new for Shoo for Good.
"Want company?" one of them eagerly asked, almost jumping out of her chair.
"Of course I do!" I answered. The third friend looked on, detached, with no real interest in joining us. "Jane, you come too," we both said. She hemmed a bit.
We finished our salads and went off on our separate, busy ways. I doubted either of them would really be able to pull it together to join me--I was leaving in less than two months--but I remained hopeful. Then the texts started flying: so-and-so says Kolkata's a must, the real India; I talked with my friend who says we should go to Varanasi; my husband's supportive of the idea.
Next thing I knew, we were on the phone with Victoria Dyer of India Beat, a travel service specializing in India that came highly recommended by another friend. I wish we had had more time to plan only because it's so much fun. In anticipation, we all read books by Indian authors (I enjoyed Arundhati Roy's latest book, "The Ministry of Utmost Happiness," almost as much as I enjoyed "The God of Small Things"), watched Bollywood and other Indian films, and mined friends and the internet for shopping and eating recommendations (though Victoria certainly had that covered).
In the end, I did a week of work on my own then joined Jane and Vida in Delhi for another 10 days of inspiring travel. I'd been to Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur (the "Golden Triangle") before, but it had been 30 years! It was just ask magical as I remembered it being.
So many highlights: South Park Street Cemetery in Kolkata, the Taj Mahal (of course), the Palace of the WInds in Jaipur. And we really lucked out by being in Jaipur for Holi! We celebrated with a party at Diggi Palace where we tossed brightly colored (organic) powdered dyes at each other and other guests, danced under rain heads to live music, and enjoyed a meal in the lovely garden.
Mostly, we loved the people we met. India Beat set us up with Vijay, a charming and knowledgeable guide who answered every question we had (and we had gazillions). The manager at The Raj Mahal Palace in Jaipur loved that Vida knew her Bollywood stars and became a friend. And my new partners in Kolkata were beyond welcoming and gracious. (More on them soon!)
And, because this is Shoo for Good, I must add a note about mosquitoes. Dengue fever, a mosquito-borne illness that causes high fever, headache, body aches, nausea, and rash, is a major concern in India. Some people bitten by an infected mosquito will remain asymptomatic while others may end up in a hospital or may even die. Malaria, too, remains a health issue in India, though it's not as prevalent as dengue fever and the number of cases has been declining in recent years. Mosquitoes are a year-round problem here, though they're worse during monsoon season (May to October) and when the weather is warm, from March to early November.
Bottom line is you'll want to avoid being bitten! Time your trip well and bring your Shoo for Good wrap with you! We wore ours daily, not only for mosquito protection but also to keep the heat off us and for covering our shoulders in places of worship. They also came in handy in the chill of an early morning walking tour of Jaipur before the city really woke up and the streets were glorious and quiet. Because of the danger of severe illness, however, we also used Repel mosquito spray on our exposed skin.
Don't you dare let those little pests keep you from enjoying this amazing country!