Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Namaste: Tips for a Happy India Travel

Me with the owner of this silk shop in Varanasi.
Very fine stuff he has.
Of my eleven days of backpacking in five places in northern India, I have been in instances that made me learn some things about traveling. I would like to share to you these things, and hope that it would help you enjoy the place, appreciate the people and the culture, and be safe. If you have followed my posts about India, you'll see that I have truly enjoyed my experience there. You can read my thoughts and photos of India here.

Some may think eleven days is not enough, as I've met others who stayed longer and went south too, but I know this list would help especially for first-timers. Some tips are even more applicable for girls. For those who have been to more than I had, feel free to add or correct whatever is on the list. I would greatly appreciate it! Just tell me your name or link so I can acknowledge you. So, in no particular order, here are some tips :)

1. Stay cool and positive. India has a lot of nuisances--the crowd, the touts, the traffic, the noise, the garbage. It can get irritating at times, but don't let it ruin your day. Even if you get cheated once or twice (which most likely will happen to you), just treat it as a step to making you a wiser traveler.

2. Ask the right people. India mostly don't have street name signage, so even if you have a map, you still need to ask around. Ask from policemen, and traffic enforcers. Indians are helpful, so you could also look for people who look like they speak English. College student looking persons most likely speak English, although it depends where you are. In Delhi, most people can speak the language. One student there even gave me a tip of how much the fare for tuktuk would be to the place I'm going to.

3. Love to haggle. When buying in shops and riding the tuktuk, always haggle for a price. They always charge 30-100% (even more) higher than the correct price. The most notorious are the tuktuk drivers and cab drivers. One bike driver charged me 100 rupees, and when I said no and about to go down, he said "Ok, 10 rupees". Imagine, from 100 to 10. It's okay if you'll get cheated on your first days, but as your trip goes on, you'll have an idea how much things are. I found it helpful to ask drivers how many kilometers you will be running as this can be your basis for haggling on your next ride. Also, agree to a price before riding.

4. Act like as if you know where you're going even if you don't. At least know where you want to go. Lonely planet said one of the ways not to attract touts is to act like you know, don't make eye contact with them and look straight as you scan the place.

5. Be assertive. Sellers and touts can be a bit aggressive, forcing you to buy their stuff. Some men would try to engage you in a small talk, and if you entertain them, some would think you like them already. One tour guide I had even said he loves me! Whatever you're reaction is up to you. But if you feel uncomfortable, just be straightforward and say no politely.
On the train, with my guidebook.

6. Research and plan (in pencil). India was a challenging place for me to travel, and those who have been there would agree. Researching and planning became one of my securities, and probably have lessened the hassle. Because even if I have researched, sometimes I still felt unprepared and still wandered and got lost. Knowing where to go and how to get there can help you maximize your time and see as much as you can.

Book trains in advance to ensure the seat/class that you prefer. Reserve your hotels or guest houses, and confirm through email or call a day before your date of arrival. After a long plane or train ride, what you want is to go directly to your hotel, get a little rest and start wandering off right away.

7. Buy a good guide book. Although it can be bulky, it can save your life. And it's a good start for researching.

8. Wear decent clothes. Literally, a lot of eyes will be on you especially if you are a girl. As a foreigner, you are new to their eyes. So in order not to catch more attention, it's best not to wear revealing clothes like shorts, tube, see-through and tight-fitting clothes .

9. Eat bananas. Instead of munching on chips for snacks, have one or two bananas because they give you energy. Good too when you plan to delay your lunch in order to see a place. And it's cheap too.

10. Stay with bottled water. Diarrhea is one of the things you wouldn't want to happen to you (especially before a train ride). So as much as possible, stay with bottled or canned drinks. Well. maybe chai can be an exception because it's so delicious! I've been offered chai a lot of times in souvenir shops, guest houses, etc. If the place looks okay, I think you can say yes to chai! It's the Indians' way of saying to you that you are welcome to their place. It's heated anyway  :)

11. Eat where it looks okay. My guidebook suggested lots of places to eat, from cheaper ones to expensive. Another indication that the place might be safe is if you see other foreigners eating.

12. Bring medicine and vitamin C. Getting sick is the least that you want in your travel. I found this very useful because at the middle of my trip, I had colds and slight fever. I also had a diarrhea scare just right before my train ride, and you wouldn't want to have diarrhea on the train, believe me.

Dinner local style in an old village in Khajuraho
with fellow tourists I just met on the day
and their Indian hosts. 
I guess the food in India also helped me to get well because their dishes contain lots of ginger and garlic.

13. Take chances. Don't be paranoid. You've heard stories about how India is so challenging and how people would want to have your money. You might also get this impression as you're reading through my list, but I hope you're not thinking that you should be unfriendly. I'd like to think that in every place, there is good and bad. And the only way to find out is to take some chances. You can tell somehow if the person is okay as you talk with them. And if you don't like the person, you can end your connection anyway. During my stay in India, the best times were my chance encounters with locals. Those moments when I allowed things to happen turned out really well. I'm not saying I totally let go of my guard and got crazy! But I gave some things a chance to prove itself worthy.

14 Travel light. All the walking and running to catch a train or a plane, waiting while carrying your heavy bags and lifting them can be really stressful! So, carry clothes good for only a week, and do your laundry. Allot also space for souvenirs.

15. Bring light blanket. I found this very useful too. It provided extra cover for myself for overnight trains, and also for beds that doesn't seem fresh (for budget hostels).

16. Get used to be stared at. In connection with number eight, yes, you'll get stares of different degrees, from  lewd to just an appreciation stare. But I think it's all just because you look beautiful to them (on the brighter side hehe). For stares that feel uncomfortable, just ignore it, better yet, don't look at them at all. There was a time that I psyched myself that I'm a beauty queen. Anyway, it's just a stare, and in my experience, they don't get physical.

17. Take photos of the locals and with the locals. As they stare at you, the next thing they want is to take your photo with them! And they will also truly love for you to take a photo of them. Even if you will not be able to give them a print, they don't care. Seeing their faces on your camera screen is enough to make them smile. And this was one of the things I enjoyed in India :)  See some of my portraits of them here.

18. Don't pack your day with seeing a lot of places.  Hurrying up is not really seeing a place. You won't really appreciate it. So take your time, feel it.

19. Pamper yourself in between tours. India is rough, and it's nice to give yourself a break even for just one day. Stay at you hotel and sunbathe at the pool, do yoga, eat at a fine restaurant, or hire a tuktuk for one day to bring you to places hassle-free.

20. Smile. Show appreciation of gestures of hospitality. During my days in Delhi, I stayed at my host's place, and gave her our local (Philippine) woven fabric as my token of gratitude for accommodating me.

Tell them you love the food. Ask about it, the ingredients, how they make it. Have chai with them. Show some interest in their culture.

21. Take the prepaid taxi. If you are in train stations and airports, inquire if there is a prepaid taxi booth. Prepaid taxis work by you giving the address at the booth, and they'll put on the receipt how much your fare is. Then you'll pay at the booth and ride the taxi. It's up to you if you'll give the driver a tip or not.

This is all for now! I hope I have helped you in any way. Just keep in mind that these are based from my experience, and experiences may not be the same in every person. I am looking forward for more tips from you! :)

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