All travelers have their favorite travel tips, and I'm no exception. My current mystery series is set in India and features Anita Ray, an Indian-American woman photographer. She lives in a small tourist hotel, and mutters occasionally about the problems tourists get into. Hence, my first rule.
1. Know where you're going to stay at least for the first one or two nights. If you arrive during a festival or the high season for travelers, you may not be able to find a room. Driving from hotel to hotel to ask is a waste of time and money. Book in advance. I prefer the small guesthouse to the large western-style hotel. The guesthouses in India are called home stays, and to my everlasting amusement, restaurants serve homely meals.
2. If you don't know the area, take a walk around the center and then book a short tour. You may not like looking like a tourist, but you will get a sense of the area and the sights, and have a chance to relax and enjoy the first part of your trip without worrying about what you should see and how to get there. I've learned a lot from tour guides, and made some wonderful discoveries. I also got to know the city and surrounding area faster.
3. Once you're ready to strike out on your own, ask the hotel to hire a small taxi or, in India, an autorickshaw. You will get a reputable driver with a tourist license. In a busy city you can pick up a taxi anywhere, but if you are taking a long day trip or going out for the evening, ask the hotel for someone reliable.
4. This is my cardinal rule. If you see people gathering, go over and take a look. If it's a festival with music and dancing, as in Europe, join in if you can. If it's a religious festival, which is more likely the case in India, you can stand on the sidelines and watch respectfully. Special events are easy to find in places like India because they decorate the entrances, or put up special stands for performers. Don't pass up street performers. Many of them are professionals.
5. Read the local papers for listings of free events. I regularly find free concerts and plays, and arrange a taxi to take me there and back. During the tourist season in India, local authorities offer free concerts of South Indian music, dance performances, drama, and all sorts of other events. These are easily located in public parks and halls. Don't worry about arriving late or leaving early. Indians are very casual when it comes to performances.
6. If you see a beautiful street or lane, take a walk, with your camera of course, and enjoy the beauty. Sometimes the best parts of a city are the ones tourists are not expected to see. I usually spend several days walking around parts of Trivandrum and other cities just to get a feel of how people live and regard their homes. Since I'm writing about India all the time, I'm always looking for visuals that will enhance the setting or serve the plot.
7. Meet people. This isn't easy on a short trip, but I'm always touched by the number of taxi drivers and others who invite me to dinner or to enjoy a cool drink and introduce me to their family. If they ask me to take a photograph, I always do. I don't really understand why Indians often ask this because they don't want a copy, but I do as asked. Over the years I've collected some photos that I know now are unusual, especially the Muslim woman who stopped me in a tiny village in the hills and posed for me, and the parents of a taxi driver.
8. In some Indian cities it's not safe for women to go out at night. This is changing, but unless I'm attending a concert or meeting friends in their home, I am happy to stay in. In resort areas, dinner is late, and sitting under the rising moon can be the best part of the day.
For the Love of Parvati
Prepare rice according to package instructions. Heat oil in pan and sauté onions until they are translucent. Toss in cashews and raisins and stir regularly until onion begins to brown. Stir another two minutes or so. Place rice in serving bowl. Add onion preparation over rice. Serve at once.
In the foothills of South India a man struggles against ropes tying him to an old bridge while the monsoon rages and wild animals forage for food. In the valley below, Anita Ray and Auntie Meena are stopped at a roadblock while their car is searched.
When Anita and Meena arrive at their destination, Lalita Amma's household is in turmoil. During a break in the rain, Anita discovers a body washed into the riverbank. The police whisk away the corpse and refuse to answer questions.
For the Love of Parvati brings Anita Ray face to face with a killer determined to exact revenge for a code of honor broken, a lover determined to rescue his beloved, and a woman desperate to build a new life.