Dreamed of going to India but worried about surviving? Bruce Morris gets a taste of this exciting land, the safe and comfortable way.
On the fringes of Jaipur, one of India's great sights collides with two different faces of a land where eking out a living is a constant challenge.
The imperious Amber Fort peers over the lake through the winter mist as monkeys scamper and elephants march up a narrow hillside path.
It's a stunning setting. The only thing missing is one of those big soundtracks marking Cinerama epics of the 60s. If Ben Hur was Indian, here would be the place to shoot the remake.
In this century, the fort is crawling with tourists and an elephant ride to the top is what you do. We join the queue in the midday heat and turn our backs on the hawkers. But one is impossible to ignore - for his pleasant and amusing manner, not the hard-sell of his very fine sunhats.
After he's tracked us up to the elephant berth, however, I give up. He began at 500 rupees (about $10) and levels out at 200 ($4). I agree to pay (at probably twice his bottom price) and the smile of a deal done is worth the premium.
I pull out two 100 rupee notes and shake his hand. A second later, he hands one back with a simple "too much". I have made a mistake: one of the notes is 500 rupees.
He could have pocketed it and moved on to another gullible tourist, but he gave it back. What does that say about the honesty of hawkers in a land where everyone is on the make and a day in a factory will yield barely 400 rupees ($8)? Hard to say, but the guide thinks I was just lucky.
Five minutes later, we meet our elephant driver. The 400m ride up to the fort has been paid for and before clambering aboard we learn from the guide that a 100 rupee tip will be ample.
It's not a great experience. As other elephants saunter, ours almost trots, and we pass everyone in sight. It seems our driver wants to squeeze in as many round trips as he can, with no concern for passenger or animal.
He ignores a suggestion he might slow, but at the entrance to the square of the majestic fort, with the finish line in sight, he swings around and inquires, "Gratuity?"
It's a bit like a rude waiter ignoring you for an hour before messing up your order, spilling soup over your lap then demanding a tip. But I take out a 100 rupee note (making very sure it's not 500) and say, "It would've been 200 rupees if you had gone slower." He isn't happy, suggesting others tip much more (damn Americans) and, as far as I could tell, that I'm mean. Tough. He should talk to the elephant - and to the hat salesman for a lesson in customer service.
No matter how majestic the sights and the scenery, it's the people who give the lasting memories.
With a population of over 1.2 billion, India must have its share of nasties but, outside of elephant man, we found a country and its people happy to see and look after us. People in most places returned a smile and a wave; nowhere did we feel uncomfortable or out of our depth.
It was our first trip to India. We had always been intrigued by the thought but, as the years passed, considered it probably just too hard. Then, as the Gold Card peered over the horizon of the bucket list, we decided, "Dammit, let's go."
The country draws two emotions - people who love the place (or the thought of it) for the mysticism and colour; and those who wouldn't be seen dead there because of the belief that's how they'd end up if they ever visited it on holiday.
It isn't the sort of country where most people would feel comfortable hiring a car; the local public buses play their own version of Indian roulette and while the redoubtable railway network holds the place together, it has its own challenges.
We went the organised four-star hotel way (elevated enough that we slept one night in a four-poster once host to Madonna) through a small Delhi company with hundreds of TripAdvisor endorsements - our own wagon and driver, internal flights and a train trip.
The 17-day tourist path - from Delhi to Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaipur; then to Agra and the Taj Mahal with a diversion to Varanasi on the Ganges and back to Delhi - hardly amounted to "seeing India", but it gave a glorious taste.
Staying well had been our biggest worry and it helped to have a driver and guides watching over us. We gorged ourselves and suffered no more than the, er, looseness that might come after a night out at a spicy Auckland restaurant.
But, as a doctor with multiple Indian stamps in his passport said before we left, you can be unlucky. A samosa from a fly-plagued, grimy street stall may cause no harm, but a rogue kitchen hand with cavalier regard to hygiene in a good hotel can ruin holidays.
So you pay your money and take your chances, with the knowledge that hygiene is always improving and the best places are as safe as Ponsonby Rd.
Indiaphiles may look down their noses at air-conditioned cars and quality hotels, but the real India is never more than a few metres away, no matter how comfortable your choice of travel. Nowhere is the gap between rich and poor more extreme, and poverty and squalor so conspicuous.
In the week India sent a mission to Mars, we reach Rajasthan's commanding Sardagarh Fort, a heritage hotel in the bones of a 250-year-old fortress. It sits high above a lake on one side with a typical small town at its feet.
Young women toss flower petals over our heads as we arrive and the owner - the direct descendant of the original maharaja - and his wife are charming in their welcome and attention. The room is a sublime suite with three rooms, opening to a serene grassed courtyard.
Before dinner on the open ramparts, we stroll down to the village through foraging pigs (giving a clue to lowly caste status) to find muck, stench and dust. While the kids smile from grubby doorways, the faces of some of their parents seem sad rather than welcoming in the shadow of the opulence above. The gap is the distance between Earth and Mars.
From our brief taste of India, we return with great memories of the people, the food, pulsating magical cities, wonderful monuments - the Taj Mahal, forts, palaces and temples - and rich culture. Diwali in Auckland isn't quite the same as it is in Jaipur, though shouting "Richard Hadlee, Stephen Fleming" is the easy way through language barriers at cricket games.
There's the other side, too. The assault on the senses can be unrelenting and a cool hotel room gives blessed relief from the filth and squalor, traffic crush and horns, animals and their muck, heat, smell, dust, pushing and shoving. And bloated bodies on the Ganges.
Take away the traffic and it's probably been like that forever.
But travel isn't all about manicured parks and elegant museums, and no one goes to India to lie beside the pool. The experience is the thing, often uncomfortable yet always rich. It helps to have a bit of tolerance but no one should feel the experience is beyond them.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific is currently offering Christmas-time airfares from New Zealand to New Delhi.
When to go: October to February is best, except for the far north. Avoid the heat of the summer (March-May) and watch the monsoon months (June-September).
Visa requirements: Kiwis can obtain a visa on arrival, but getting one ($95) from the Indian High Commission will save time.
Health precautions: Your doctor will have the latest advice. Expect to pay around $200 each for jabs and drugs.