With genuinely lavish appointments cropping up in the wild, the meaning of basic necessities has also changed. By its very nature, certain gear—anything dependent on electrical outlets or other forms of connectivity—is expendable when journeying to a new frontier. Who really needs an iPod when a Fijian choir is willing to serenade?And although I’ve figured out how to download episodes of Lost onto my laptop and have largely mastered Wi-Fi, I try to leave it at home, too. Whenever I have been surprised by small comforts (a bucket shower, a clean blanket, a cold drink) in outermost circumstances, or have found myself smugly planning ahead (my own tea bags, toilet tissue, painkillers, and chocolate-covered nuts) to counter mild deprivation in these locales, it has served to remind me that each degree of ease has a corollary, but entirely individual, tolerance for discomfort. Like pool butlers. I can definitely do without them. Porters, on the other hand, are, well, handy. Even with my whatever-fits-in-one-bag packing rule, I only stand five foot two in my Jimmy Choos—I’m always grateful to have someone sling my leather tote into an overhead rack on a crack-of-dawn train to Mombasa or Siberia or the Himalayas.
The Dehradun Shatabdi Express takes 4½ hours to travel 162 miles between New Delhi and Rishikesh, the holy gateway for yogic converts and impassioned Beatles-trivia buffs. (It is also home to Ananda in the Himalayas, a mellow spa retreat with three handsome new villas high above the rushing brown Ganges River.) Since executive class was sold out on my recent trip there, I wound up in a chair car, still air-conditioned and with tolerable meal service, and probably the best carriage from which to see middle-class India on the move. (Do not be fooled by sleeper class, a misnomer for the cattle cars where travelers are crammed onto bench seats, clog the aisles, and hang out of open doorways, gasping for fresh air.) Quite soon, however, impatient pilgrims will be able to shorten their trip to the ashrams by hours when Dehradun Airport, currently closed for expansion, reopens. To my mind, that will be a shame, especially after observing life in Uttarakhand unfurl outside the train window. And then there’s the priceless farewell as the train finally pulls into Haridwar station. The loudspeaker crackles to life with a polite, disembodied message from an anonymous lady representing Indian Railways. She trills, "We wish you a comfortable and effortless journey."
Shane Mitchell is a special correspondent for Travel + Leisure.