A Vagabond’s Guide to Travel in India

No doubt, India is a challenging country to navigate. With around 350 different languages and dialects, a swarm of different religions (and sects of religions, and contrasting opinions on how to practice said religions) and a seemingly different culture every time you switch neighborhood, let alone state, it’s hard to come to any solid conclusions of how to do. . .well, anything really.

More than anything else, India is a country of contrasts. If you go looking for the wide-eyed street kids in rags and robed babas with painted faces that occupy so many of our media-fueled impressions of India, you’re sure to find them. You’ll find the insistent street vendors and the cows occupying city streets and the painted rickshaws driving like madmen. But if you look a bit harder you’ll also find a country pulling itself into the modern day, and you’ll find an educated youth, hungry for knowledge of the world outside their own and eager to converse with you about it.

Just one of the many faces waiting to greet you in India.

You’ll find the devout whose everyday lives are ruled by the worship of their gods. You’ll also find many for whom religion plays almost no role in their existence. You’ll find touts out to scam you, and people genuinely eager to help – to open their homes or share their lives with you.

Pete and I with our new friend Ashish, in his family’s home.

In short, India is not a stereotype, and doesn’t fit into any neat little box. Which, really, just means it’s like anywhere else I’ve traveled.

Passport control at Indira Gandhi International

To Start

That said, it is easy to feel off balance in India, particularly upon arrival. There’s just something about the place that takes some getting used to. Pretty much everyone I spoke to, even well-seasoned travelers, experienced some level of culture shock upon entering the country. I know I did. And it was all the more off-putting because I had traveled extensively, and had never felt that crushing confusion before.

Afterward, it will be difficult to put your finger on what, exactly, threw you so violently off balance. Alright, yeah, the traffic’s nuts and someone’s shitting on the sidewalk over there but, in the end, the general day to day of most of the population, particularly in the areas you’re likely to travel, isn’t so different from Western culture. Neither are the people, truly.

There are some differences that take some getting used to. The infamous ‘head wobble’ from yesterday’s guest post being one of them. Be warned: the head wobble is addictive, and you will start doing it.

You will also start saying ‘is possible’. This is a substitute for ‘yes’. Confusingly, it’s also a substitute for ‘no’. Sometimes. See, as much as I can figure it, Indians just hate saying ‘no’. I’m not sure why. Perhaps shop owners don’t want to lose business, perhaps people just don’t want to disappoint you. But if a shop doesn’t have something you’re looking for, they’re far more likely to say ‘Tomorrow is possible’ as opposed to ‘I cannot help you.’ So, naively, you will show up tomorrow. And get the same answer.

You’ll catch on to this stuff. Really you will. And it’ll become fun, in its own way. You’ll get used to any task taking 3 times as long as it should. You’ll get used to being given directions that point you entirely in the wrong direction. After just a couple weeks in the country, you’ll be head wobbling and joking with other travelers about comical difficulties from unreliable power to loose bowels. ‘That’s India’ will become your mantra. Were assured hot water and don’t even have a sink in your room? That’s India. Were told you should go this way and were led into a dead-end alley 3 blocks from where you were meant to be? India. Ordered food at a restaurant only to be informed (or not even informed) that it now can’t be cooked because the power has gone and they’ve no idea when it will be back?

As an American I met in Rishikesh put it, “That’s India. Shanti the fuck up. Drink it in.”

Well, it IS technically a western toilet, as promised.

Challenges and Dangers

While many of the difficulties you’ll encounter in India will be comical (if not immediately then at least after the fact), there are safety concerns that deserve to be taken seriously.

The poverty will take some getting used to. Most of us affluent enough to afford travel aren’t used to seeing men without hands begging in the street, or children, their faces smudged with filth, carrying babies as they tug at your sleeves for coins.

Trying to overcome ‘white guilt’ will definitely be an upcoming post in the future but for now, in short, I advise this: Try and find your own balance. Yes, you are far more well off than most in this country. But their poverty is not your direct responsibility. Choose to help where you feel compelled to, but do not bankrupt yourself doing so, and don’t let a guilt at not being able to help everyone overwhelm your time in the country.

As you’ll often hear and read, it’s best not to hand coins to child beggars. If you wish to help, buying food for them directly is a better call.

Do a bit of reading beforehand to familiarize yourself with a few basic precautions. There are a number of scams common in India. As an example, at the burning ghats in Varanasi people will invite you for tours of hospices, then ask for donations that will never reach the people they were promised to. Corruption is a problem, and fake charities in general are still too common. Take care, and do your research before donating to anyone.

Women travelers are going to have their own set of challenges. Sometimes you will not be taken seriously, other times you will be downright disrespected. ‘Eve Teasing’ is still common, though the situation is improving (check out this great ad against Eve teasing in which Indian men are encouraged to assault perpetrators). I had a 5 year old kid grab my ass in a movie theatre while his other hand was grasped in his mother’s. A dude actually managed to grab my tit as he drove by on a motorbike in Jaipur. Sometimes guys will just needlessly brush up against you, so subtly you’re not even sure it was intentional. Remember that people will act according to the settings they were raised in, and try not to let it get to you. Particularly given how Western woman are portrayed in the media, most of these guys think they’re just being cheeky as opposed to crossing serious moral boundaries. Don’t stand for it, but neither let it get you down. Object and lecture where possible and otherwise just shrug it off.

Female travelers will just have to get used to the constant attention. Particularly if you head off the beaten path, people – men, women and children alike – will be taken with you. People will want to shake your hand, touch your hair and take photos of you, possibly several, with or without them in it. For the most part people are good about this, and your patience is always appreciated. I liked to think of my posing for the photos as banking karma for all the photos I wanted to take of them.

In a country of one billion, personal space is not existent. If you cannot deal with being constantly brushed up against or crowded, do not go to India.

Visas

How you apply for your visa will depend upon where you are applying from. One thing worth knowing that I believe is consistent across most nationalities (it is, at the very least, true of Canadians applying for a tourist visa) is that your visa will activate upon the date of issue, NOT the date of entry. So if you apply for your 6 month tourist visa 3 months before you leave, you will only have 3 months with which to tour.

This is of course irritating as you do not really want to book your flight and accommodation until you’re guaranteed entry into the country. But if you want to get as much time out of your visa as possible, you may be forced to run that risk.

Travel and Transportation

India is massive. If you get too ambitious with your itinerary, you’re going to spend half your time just getting from place to place. My suggestion is to pick one chunk, and do it well. You’ll enjoy it more, feel less dragged out and get more out of the experience.

You’ve a ton of options for getting around – bus, care hire, train, motorcycle touring. . .affordable options abound.

Not suggested for long haul travel.

Bus

I took one bus, from Delhi to Rishikesh. It was a 7 hour journey, and cold and uncomfortable as all hell. The window rattled the entire way, I was knocked in the head a couple times by people’s bags, and one dude insisted on playing music full blast on his phone at 4 in the morning.

I booked my ticket through my hostel, as did the girl sitting next to me. As a perfect example of a ‘That’s India’ instance, we had actually booked two different tickets – Hers was A/C while mine, a couple hundred rupees cheaper, was non.

Well, I suppose she did have the window seat.

Train

Traveling by train in India is definitely an experience. There are a variety of available tiers of seats and which you choose may greatly affect the experience you have. Be warned – trains are often booked far in advance. Do not just show up the day before and expect to get a ticket.

It is occasionally possible to pick up last minute tickets – some are reserved for just that purpose. But unless you like waiting for hours to be crushed in a crowd, then cluelessly attempt to fill out an abundance of form work with an immense amount of confusion, I’d personally suggest coughing up the extra cash to go through a booking agent to pick them up for you.

I’m aware of four main options for booking train tickets in India:

http://www.cleartrip.com/trains – The easiest option. You pay by credit card and are done.

http://www.makemytrip.com/railways/ – The government website. You can look up listings here, get the number of the train you’re looking for, then book it from a computerized booking office.

Tourist vendors – You’ll pay more, but it’s a lot less hassle. All depends on what’s more important to you – money, or time.

Buying direct from the station – This was how I picked up my ticket, a last minute buy as described above. I. . .do not recommend it. Perhaps it would be less painful if you were booking a ticket further in advance, and/or weren’t dying of dysentery at the time.

Motorcycle touring

These ended up being two posts in themselves. The first, a largely humorous account of the general challenges and oddities you can expect from a bike tour in the country can be read here, while the second, filled with the more practical nitty gritty of buying and maintaining a bike in India will be the next post up.

Staying connected

If you’ve an unlocked phone handy, you can buy a local sim for it in India. Costs are reasonable though connectivity, particularly for 3G data, can be sketchy at times. You’ll need your passport and a passport sized photo to get a sim, as well as a local address for the formwork. It’s a bit of a headache, but you won’t get a card without it.

Your 3G data is purchased separately from your talk-time. Both have a typical expiry of 30 days. The shop you are buying from can explain to you how top-ups are done. My biggest piece of advice here – for fuck’s sake REMEMBER YOUR PHONE CODES. The cost of data and talk-time packages are different for every state, and shops in one will not know the codes of another. Neglecting to write these down could mean you’ll get ripped off for the amount of credit you get for your rupees. Just take note of the cost of your talk-time or data the first time you buy, and write it down for future reference.

Different types of phones (Android, iPhone) have different start-up codes you’ll need to enter. So take note of the shop where you buy, as you may need to return the next day (or 3) to work out issues with request codes.

Shops may not always have the data pack you are looking for. If they say to come back tomorrow, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee they will actually have it tomorrow.

Sim cards usually work across state lines and roaming isn’t bad. But sometimes your card will just stop working. Trying to fix the problem isn’t usually worth the headache. Just get a new card.

Sim cards are not the only instance in which you may need passport size photos while in India. There are also travel permits, etc. Consider getting some to carry with you. I had 4 very decent photos (seriously, I wish I could use them for my driver’s license) done near PVR in the Saket area of Delhi for a mere 60 Rs.

Shopping

Haggling is par for the course pretty much anywhere it doesn’t blatantly say ‘fixed price’. I intend to, at some point in the future, write a guide to haggling. I have not yet.

Post

Sending anything back by post is a curious affair. You will need to pack your items in a very particular way – so particular in fact, you’ll almost certainly need to hire someone to do it for you.

First, when you bring your package to the office you will need to list what items you are sending, so be sure to make that list before you wrap everything up.

Most major post offices will have someone in or outside them that can do the packaging for you. It’ll involve packing the items first into cardboard, then actually sewing the package into a pillow-case-like cloth, then sealing off the seams with melted wax.

Still needs it’s wax seals. That’s right, this gets MORE ridiculous looking.

I sent two mid-size packages back to Canada and the cost of packing was 200Rs, while the cost of post itself was 1,285Rs. The packages made it back safe and sound, but the two postcards I sent have yet to surface.

Health

I was obviously not great with this, so I won’t pretend to have the answers to maintaining your health in India. I am also not a doctor, and it’s probably not a great idea for me to try dishing out uninformed medical advice.

I will say this: Be aware of what Dysentery and Gastroenteritis feel like, and what they can do to your body. Many travelers in India will speak highly of downing Cipro (an anti-biotic easily found in Indian pharmacies) when your gut starts giving you trouble, but consult your doctor first as to the risks and benefits of doing this. Strong antibiotics are capable of messing with the balance of your intestinal flora. Perhaps inquire as well about pro-biotics and when to use them – they were what eventually set me right.

Traveling without insurance is a risk I’ve never bothered to take. I personally get mine through World Nomads. They were great with the issues I had, and I was fully reimbursed for any medical and emergency evacuation costs I had the receipts for to file with them. Know what you’re covered for, always get receipts and, when possible, always inform your insurance agency you are ill before racking up bills.

NOMS.

Food

I would never be able to compete with the swarm of articles there are out there on the culinary delights and disasters available to you in India. I will simply say that sugar cane juice is deliciously refreshing (but gross when they add salt to it), and India has the best pineapple I’ve ever tasted.

Menus in most major locations will be printed in English, but still use a swarm of words that may be unfamiliar to you. Consider bringing a reference sheet with you from a site like this one.

Festivals

Depending on the festival, crowds can get rowdy, and in large numbers. The only major festival I hit was Holi in Vrindavan which, while I hate to say it, I can’t say I’d recommend to solo female travelers. For the why on that, check out this post.

I’ve heard the festival can be milder in other locations, but men are still likely to be pretty grabby.

. . yeeeah.

Entertainment/Videos

Hrithik Roshan

No, really, I love him for his brilliant acting abilities. (Photo credit: OddLens.com (Ashish Jain Photography)

I got quite into Bollywood films just before leaving for India and, happily, a new film starring my favorite actor, Hrithik Roshan, came out just before my leaving.

So, as a prelude to my departure, my best mate and I took in Agneepath in a Toronto theatre just days prior to my flight out. Unfortunately, Western cinemas didn’t recognize the need for an intermission in a 3+ hours movie so my bladder was pretty strained by the end of it.

Keep in mind that Bollywood won’t tell you any more about Indian culture than Hollywood will about North America, but the films can be stupidly fun to watch. A couple suggestions:

Dhoom 2 – Another starring Roshan. It’s a stupidly over the top action film with ridiculous (in the true sense of the word) special effects. Insanely fun to watch. Trailer is here.

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara – Also Roshan, along with some other big names including Katrina Kaif who also appears, albeit briefly and inexplicably, in Agneepath. 3 guys leave on a bachelor trip through Spain, each one picking an extreme sport in which to partake in each location they hit. I enjoyed this one largely for the cultural jokes I only half got. The trailer sucks.

Delhi Belly – A black comedy about 3 roommates who get tangled up with the mob in Mumbai, largely in Hinglish. A good laugh, highly recommend. Check out the trailer here.

Mausam – A tiringly (apparently not a word, even though untiringly is. wtf spellcheck?) repetitive love saga that takes places through several decades, but it has what is possibly my favourite Bollywood song and dance sequence ever. Skip the movie, and just check out the song here.

3 Idiots – My top recommendation. A sort of Dead Poet’s Society type film but, more than anything else, it provides an interesting window into the lives of youth in modern India. Again, the trailer isn’t great.

Along the vein of popular media, you can also check out MTV’s ‘Sound Trippin’. Sneha Khanwalkar travels through various Indian states, recording sound clips and incorporating them into songs reminiscent of the locations. You can read more about the project and check out the videos on their page here. To date, she’s done 11 songs including Leh, Kolkata and Varanasi.

And here I would love to add some reading to the list, showing what a fine, cultured citizen I am. . . And I HAD books. Several of them.

Unfortunately, because I am NOT as cultured as I would like to be, they sit, unread, on my phone or in my backpack, as I as have instead been devouring the Locke and Key comic series, as well as Patrick Rothfuss’s (AMAZING) Kingkiller chronicle books, The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear (which I highly recommend).

The books I had with me were selected after careful consideration and research, and come highly recommended. Hopefully, some day I will read them. They are:
In Light of India by Octavio Paz
In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India by Edward Luce
India: A Portrait by Patrick French
– And, for a complete rundown of the history of the country, the aptly named India: A History by John Keay

Interactions

If you ask 3 different Indians the same question, you may well receive 5 different answers. As I’ve stated before, It’s difficult to the point of impossible to sum up any part of India with definity (seriously? Is this not a word? Because it should be). However, there are a few general tips that will serve you well, most of which are solid suggestions for travel in general.

Be patient, but not overly so. Most things can take more time than you’d like and getting frustrated isn’t going to get you anywhere. At the same time, know when to cut your losses. If someone has promised to help you, but still isn’t coming through on that promise several days later, you may need to make a new connection.

Be wary, but not cynical. In India, as with most places, people are generally good but there are those that would happily take advantage of you. Be friendly, and courteous, but put your foot down firmly when you find things heading in a direction that makes you uncomfortable. You should never feel pressured into buying anything you don’t want, or going somewhere you do not feel safe.

Lastly, a more specific suggestion – avoid using the word ‘afraid’ in the context of ‘I am afraid I do not understand’. It really doesn’t translate well, and many people will take it to mean you are fearful of them. I had this one happen to me a couple times. A text of “I’m sorry I cannot join you today. I’m afraid I’ve fallen sick.” Was almost always replied to with “Please do not be afraid.”

Next post up will be the second part to ‘A Vagabond’s Guide to Driving in India’. See you then.

*

*Have I missed touching on something you’re curious about? Feel free to hit me up with questions in the comments block below, and I’ll add to this article where I can as questions come in.
*These reviews are regarding travels that took place February to April of 2012.
*Photos from these travels can be viewed over Flickr hereor on the Facebooks where you’ll find me as Krys C Wanders.

4 thoughts on “A Vagabond’s Guide to Travel in India

  1. Haha – this is pretty much spot on. I’m an Indian myself – but let’s just say I’m also getting used to the country since I didn’t grow up in India. But you’re absolutely right about how massive the country is and how it’s so difficult to actually have any proper rule about going around the country. The road rules are cuh-razyyy (what rules?) and some things will take time getting used to, but I think it is ultimately a very rewarding country culturally (particularly if you throw away the all-so-ubiquitous patriarchy). There’s a lot of history and culture that can fascinate you (and shock you if you’re not already used to Indian cultures).
    I’m so sorry that the festival you witnessed was Holi. I’ve actually played it only once (when I was a kid), and it wasn’t an experience I particularly cherish (for completely different reasons than the ones you listed above though). A better festival would have been Diwali.
    And I laughed about the ‘please do not be afraid’ part. Hahah. I can’t imagine someone saying that – it’s so hilarious.
    Great post!

    • I would love to have seen Diwali. Unfortunately, I was there the wrong time of year.
      The ‘afraid’ misunderstanding happened to me at least 3 times. No joke.

  2. Pingback: A Vagabond’s Guide to Travel in India | Home Far Away From Home

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