This past April I went on an amazing adventure around India with my husband Matthew and our friend Matt!! But where did I really go? India is a large country with many cities, so it is similar to saying I went to the USA!
So how do you plan a trip to this large country?
Here are a few tips.
1. Decide on how long you are going to be there.
My husband and I decided to go to India for 2 weeks then head to Nepal for an additional week. Our friend Matt, was in India for almost a full month. It really depends on what your life schedule is like. If you only have one week available, limit the number of places you will go to so you can take in your experience there. If you go for two weeks that starts to open up your options. For me 3 weeks or a month would have been better.
2. Decide on your dates – when you are going to go and when you will return.
We went in April based on our vacation schedule. If you have a more open time-table find out when different holidays are celebrated, that way you will have an amazing authentic cultural experience (it’s better than going to see a show for tourist). Give your self at least a month to plan if you plan on going to visit different cities (thanks for that info Archana!).
3. Which region do you want to go to?
North for the Himalayas, South for the beaches and ancient ruins, East and West for cities, architecture, and culture.
We decided to do the classic “Golden Triangle” (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur) route so we could visit the Taj Mahal and the other great monuments there; Udaipur, because of the Mewar festival scheduled to take place while we were there; Khajuraho, to explore the ancient Kama Sutra temples; and Varanasi, to visit one of the longest inhabited cities on earth! If you have time break up your trip by visiting bustling cities and more quiet places, that way you won’t feel as overwhelmed. Our trip was pretty much a full-out marathon, with a day trip to Sarnath where Buddha gave his first lesson after becoming enlightened. Sarnath is close to Varanasi and a nice escape from the densely populated city.
4. How are you going to travel around?
Of course you can travel by car, train, bus, and/or plane. However, we learned that the best way to travel in India is by train. Honestly you have not been to India without riding on their regional rail systems. The most informative website I have found about train travel anywhere in the world and India in particular is a blog called “The Man in Seat 61” http://www.seat61.com/India.htm . Here are a few “off the top tips” about train travel:
a. Book your train tickets in ADVANCE preferably a month or so.
b. You MUST have a mobile phone number in India in order to book in advance. So start being nice to your Indian friends so you can use their siblings or cousin’s phone number. (Without a phone number you will have to email a copy of your passport and wait for someone to reply and from what I have read in other blogs you will have to send it several times before you get a response). If you’re as lucky as we were that brother will become your family to.
c. There are several different classes on the train KNOW YOUR COMFORT LEVEL. The highest level is AC1 then goes descends as follows: AC1 , AC2, AC3, AC Executive Chair (I never saw an option for this), AC Chair, Sleeper, and Unreserved 2nd Class. I rode in AC1 for the most part, but I was very comfortable in AC2, fairly comfortable in AC3, and perfectly fine for a 4 hour ride in AC Chair. I saw the sleeper class and personally I’m just not ready for that experience (some people were sleeping on the floor) and the seats in unreserved cost less than a $1 my sister rode in that once and saw a few monkeys popping on and off the train. AC1 is the most expensive but depending on the trip we’re only talking about a $30+/- ticket. Seat 61 has more details on the details on the differences of each class.
e. You will want to bring some food, food is often sold on the train but there isn’t a selection and its sold through a restaurant that comes on the train at certain stations. The train stations do have mini food stands for chips and other snacks.
f. It is super cheap to cancel your ticket if you do so within 24 hours before your train time… so book all the options you want.
e. If you do wait until the last-minute and there are only wait list options available don’t be afraid, book the wait listed ticket. I booked 3 pairs of wait listed tickets and got all of my seats, but if you book well in advance you can spare yourself the anxiety.
f. The train station will be busy, but don’t worry all of the signs are in English, there are even signs with how the train cars will be lined up so you will know where to stand on the track. There are also quite a few places where you can get information.
e. GO TO Seat 61 India and READ http://www.seat61.com/India.htm
5. Where are you going to lodge?
I personally enjoy booking a homestay rather than a hotel for trips like India. What kind of cultural experience are you going to have at a hotel? Why?
a. For the most part it’s like visiting your cousin, except you don’t have to wash the dishes.
b. You get a local perspective and that often means advice on local prices. (A hotel concierge and the people in line behind you are going to start looking at you like you’re crazy if you try to talk to them for more than 20 minutes).
c. You usually have the option of amazing home cooked food.
d. The host is generally concerned about your well-being because you are a guest in their home.
e. You get the chance to meet really great people and exchange experiences, info, culture, etc…
f. They’ll take you to where the locals go. For instance the Lall family (https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/244446 ), that we stayed with in Delhi took me to get henna on my hands on a street corner near their house instead of going to a tourist spot. The results: I paid a lot less than other tourist and my henna was AWESOME!!
I typically use www.airbnb.com to book my homestays (there are a few hotels that sneak in, but I’ve booked hotels on there too). Tripadivsor.com also will list a few homestays in its “Specialty Lodging” or “B&B/Inns” categories. Also, per the excellent advice of my new beya (big brother) Arvind, when staying in Varanasi find a NICE place to stay. Varanasi will set all of your senses on fire so it’s great to have a place that you can have a little bit of peace.
6. You’re a female and have heard about all of these crazy rape cases, what should you do?
a. Be aware of your surroundings
b. When in Rome dress like the Romans. Seriously, get over the whole “it’s not what I’m wearing, it’s men that are the problem” attitude. While this is very true, that attitude is not going to help you be in your safest position. I actually found it very easy and inexpensive to buy clothes while in India. Oooh another subcategory.
- Most clothes are custom-made, the fabric needs to be cut. While in busy cities this will take a few days and in smaller towns this will take a few hours. In Khajuraho I was told I could have a sari made in 3 hours. In Delhi I would need 4 days.
- In Delhi you can go to a market called Sarojini Nagar (thanks Ila) they have clothes that are ready-made. The shops in the front are higher quality and more expensive. The shops in the back have really cheap options.
- Oh yeah, you can’t just by a sari. When you purchase you will get a long piece of fabric that has different parts to it: the sari, the top, and the pallu (which is like the shawl but still attached to the sari). And you will also need to get a petticoat made, which is the slip that you tuck the sari fabric into to keep your sari on your body. You generally will buy the sari from one place and get it made at another. But there are places that you can get it made and buy it also. There are several types of saris, please don’t be the tourist walking around in a wedding sari. This is where staying at a homestay will help too, do you think your hotel concierge has time to talk to you about this (Thanks Mrs. Lall). Click here to learn how to wrap one http://goodindiangirl.com/how_to_wear_a_sari.html (Thanks Archana!!)
- Do Bargain, Bargain, Bargain, that’s with anything in India.
- Buy a few kurta’s and pajamas sets. They are what you would imagine as a tunic and pants set, I prefer the slim fitting pants for the look, but the baggy ones are much better in the heat.
- The clothes are relatively inexpensive soooo bring an empty suitcase =).
c. Use your typical unknown big city guidelines: travel in pairs or a group, don’t go in dark alleys, etc… Just be smart. Go to www.couchsurfers.org to make some local traveling friends if you are traveling alone.
d. I honestly had no issues (I was traveling with my husband). But I do have friends that have had no problems at all, some that witnessed potential issues, and some that have been harassed.
e. Go to India!
7. Read a few blogs like http://alisonanddon.wordpress.com/, look at tripadvisor, read lonely planet. Know your interest and find them.
8. Get mentally prepared to have your senses rocked! Depending on where you are coming from of course.
I have heard India described as an assault on all of your senses. I’d like to call it a celebration of them. Actually it’s a little bit … umm oops… a lot of both. You will see beautiful vibrant colors on beautiful people and things, and you will see people in some of the most impoverished situations, worst than you have ever seen, and you will see cows eating trash; you will hear melodic chanting and beautiful music, and you are definitely going to hear horns honking, pots clanking, and people screaming; you will smell roti, curry, dal, and incense, and you will smell cow manure and every once in a while.. curry pouring out of someones pores (but honestly a LOT less than I expected, this only happened 3 times); you will feel Baranasi silk, chiffon, and you will feel someone’s gut in your back because standing in line apparently means a continuous no “personal space” line; you will taste a real masala chai (forget that junk you’ve been drinking at Starbucks), Southern Indian Food, Karim’s ( you must go there and eat tandoori chicken and kebabs http://www.karimhoteldelhi.com/restaurants.html) and hopefully you will not try some street food that will make you sick; and in the mist of city chaos you will suddenly happen upon an oasis completely peaceful and serene!
Just understand, you will not like everything but you will love everything India!
9. You are different!
Especially if you’re walking around with an afro. The great thing about India is that Indians speak English and are pretty outspoken people. So instead of the typical foreigner stares that you get in other countries, in India people will come up to you and say “Hi!”, and ask to take a picture with you, they’ll want to exchange facebook info, they’ll want to know where you are from, and yes my fellow afro wearers they will want to touch your hair (so pull it up in a poof if you don’t want it touched, but honestly it’s just curiosity let someone touch that gorgeous fro. Exception: if you are in a crowd because once one person does watch out others will want to too).
10. GO to INDIA! Buy your visa, get on the plane, then get henna on your palms, drink the chai, take the train, eat the food, meet the people, do some yoga, get an Ayurveda massage, and just GO!! There is a city in India waiting for you.
If you have any other questions please feel free to leave it in the comment section below.
Another post on India will be coming soon…