Travel Column: Up and Away, Down to Earth—India When You Go!

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Travel Column: Up and Away, Down to Earth—India When You Go!
Stephanie Weyant - Up and Away, Down to Earth

Travel writer, Stephanie Weyant

Dear Friends,

As promised and as a supplement to the India article trilogy, I have provided an outline of planning if you do decide to go to India.  What you need to do, what you need to pack, and what you need to expect and why are all included in this article.  I hope it serves you well!

Next month, we’ll be visiting Boston: in light of the recent tragic events of the Boston Marathon, there is no better time to show support of this great American city.

As always, feel free to ask any questions and I’ll do my best to answer them; if I don’t know it, I’ll research it to find out.  Enjoy!

Sincerely,
Stephanie

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The Story of India: Part IV – When You Go

By: Stephanie Weyant

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When You Go

India is a fascinating departure from what a western upbringing has taught us.  As chaotic, dysfunctional, and risky as it can be, I still think that everyone – at some point in their life – should visit India.  To immerse yourself in a place so far removed from the familiar is to grow in ways you cannot imagine.  That being said, expect the unexpected.  Expect that very little – if anything – will go as planned.  And when it doesn’t go as planned, just go with the flow…and trust that it will work out.  India forces you to go at India’s pace.  Believe me, coming from the fast-paced New York City, I can say with certainty that you will slow down here.  You will wander and catch your breath.  And you will love it.  I was sad when, after a week back home, I resumed my hurried, have-to-get-there-now pace…realizing that I’d lost a bit of that developing country lull.

Must Dos Before You Go

There are two critical things you must do before going to India, both of equal importance:

1)     Obtain a tourist visa from the Indian Consulate or Embassy.  No visa equals no trip.  This can be more time-consuming than it sounds.  The fastest way to do this is to visit an Indian Consulate in person, which can be done if you are in or near New York City, Washington, D.C. (here, it’s the Embassy), Chicago, Houston, or San Francisco.  Expect to wait an hour in line, talk to someone, and then wait some more.  Note their hours as they close for an extended lunch and can close early.

Alternatively, if you’re from my hometown of Kansas City or a place nowhere near these cities mentioned, then you can submit your application by mail.  In person should take less than a week; 24-48 hours is the norm.  Same-day visas can be issued, but this is usually reserved for the case of an emergency.  If you are applying by mail, please allow several weeks; typically your visa will be issued within 10 business days, but again, allowing more time is safer.  Be warned that you must surrender your passport whether you apply by mail or in person; this is a requirement for all applicants as they paste the visa directly into your passport.  This, I will admit, concerned me greatly.  But, you do get it back and then you can go to India!

The cost currently for American citizens is $76.00; $63.00 for the visa and a $13.00 processing fee (these are processed by an outsourced company called Travisa).

Visit https://indiavisa.travisaoutsourcing.com/get-a-visa for more information.

2)     Get vaccinated and get your meds.  “What meds?” you ask, “I don’t take meds.”  Well neither do I.  But if you go to India, you will need to take preventive measures to protect yourself against malaria, which is rampant in this part of the world.  There’s no vaccine for malaria, and you’ll need to start taking it several days before you leave for India.  I’ve heard these meds can cause nausea; if you’re sensitive to that, then I’d recommend taking the pills shortly before bed; several hours of sleep should take the edge off.  Or you can ask your doctor for anti-nausea medication as well.

For vaccinations, you will first need to be sure you’re up to date on the standard ones that most of us get as children: measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, diphtheria, pertussis, polio, and tetanus.  In addition, you will need to get the Hepatitis A and B vaccines; Hepatitis A is easily transmitted through water and food, and Hepatitis B through contact with blood/bodily fluids – i.e., it’s less of a risk, but if for example you’re sexually active or need emergency medical care, you’re at risk of contracting this disease.  It goes without saying that in many areas, especially less industrialized towns, sterilization and sanitizing standards are a far cry from what’s deemed acceptable in the U.S.  You’ll also need shots for typhoid fever – a deadly illness contracted by contaminated food or drinking water.  Lastly, you’ll want to get vaccinated for Japanese encephalitis.  This was a new one to me, but it’s a big one: a virus transmitted by infected mosquitoes, JE attacks your brain stem and can be fatal, or at the very least, debilitating.

Essentially, you will need to be immunized for waterborne diseases due to the bacterial contamination of the rivers and drinking water as well as diseases carried by mosquitoes.  On a side note, you may realize I didn’t mention a vaccine for dengue fever.  There isn’t one.  Wear bug spray to minimize mosquito bites, and simply hope for the best.  You should also be warned that there are strains of malaria that the available medications do not protect you against, but if you wear bug spray and get your shots and pills, your odds of contracting something are a lot slimmer.

You will need to get vaccinated 4-6 weeks before departure to India.  Some of the shots require a second round that needs to be spaced apart from the first.  Some, I was advised, need to run through your system for several weeks for the antibodies to be created and thus be effective.  The anti-malaria pills also need to be taken a week or two before your departure.  In addition, your pharmacy may need to order these out-of-the-ordinary prescriptions, so you’ll want to give them time to obtain what you need.  In other words, there is little point in getting your vaccines and prescriptions the day before you leave.  Not to mention, if you suffer from any side effects – flu-like symptoms, muscle aches and pains, fever, etc. – you’ll want to get over that before hopping on a plane to a third-world country.

Be aware that your insurance likely will not cover most of these.  This is because these vaccines are not needed if you remain in the United States.  Ironically falling under the category of “Luxury Travel,” these vaccines for India are considered a luxury because no one is making you travel to a foreign developing country.  Basically, the insurance company is telling you – if you have the money to fly abroad, then you have the money for shots.  Check your local medical centers; sometimes County Health Departments or a local Center for Disease Control branch offer discounts for the shots.

My experience.  I received all of the shots mentioned above that I wasn’t current on (or had lost the records for).  That day and the next day, I developed extreme flu-like symptoms and muscle spasms in my neck.  The doctor believed it was the Japanese Encephalitis vaccine, of which I was supposed to get a second round in two weeks’ time.  I was in excruciating pain, and was very wary of experiencing this all over again with another shot – so I did not get the second round.  Needless to say, I lived.  The doctor said the one round gave me some protection; maybe that was enough!  Another thing to budget for: as I mentioned with insurance, my vaccinations were minimally covered.  With decent insurance, my out-of-pockets costs for the shots and doctor visits surpassed $700.00.  Ouch!  That hurt more than the shots.  They don’t tell you this in the travel magazines!

The Packing List

When you go to India, whether you plan on roughing it like I did or living it up in westernized hotels, you’ll want to pack the following essentials, listed below.  This is a list that I compiled over the course of a month prior to my departure, and it’s a result of extensive research, personal experience, and basic common sense.  Apart from these key things, I highly, truly advise from the depths of my soul – to pack lightly.  Wear the clothes that you don’t care if they get ruined and dirty – that you can even discard at the end of your trip to make room for presents and souvenirs you want to bring home.  Because I promise you: you will get dirty.  Even in Delhi, many streets are unpaved and there’s dust and trash everywhere.  And it’s exhausting trying to fight it.  Once you embrace it, accept it, and let yourself get dirty – and know that your clothes are there to protect you and take a beating – you will be much better off.

DO Take With You:

  1. Your passport, a photocopy of your passport kept in a separate place (e.g., in your carry-on suitcase), some American cash, a debit card, and a couple of credit cards.  Note, most shops prefer and/or only take rupees/cash.  There are exchange places throughout the cities.
  2. All prescribed preventive medication.  Also, I would recommend writing down the time of day you’re taking your medication in the U.S.  When you get to India, it’s about a half-day change in time zones (9½ hours ahead of Eastern U.S. time to be precise – I know, the ½ hour thing is weird to me too); and you’ll need to adjust accordingly.  So if you’re taking your pills in the U.S. at 10:00am ET, you’ll need to take them in India at 7:30pm India time.  These meds can protect you from a lifetime of illness and disease: take them seriously.
  3. Allergy medicine, Advil (or whatever works for you), anti-nausea medication, and anything else you take regularly.   If dust affects your allergies, you will definitely want to bring some Zyrtec or whatever works for you.
  4. Hand sanitizer.  For every meal.  And every toilet where there’s no sink or soap.  No brainer.
  5. Water Iodine Tablets

    Water Iodine Tablets

    Iodine water purification tablets.  They’re $7.00 at REI.  Get them.  You’ll likely not need them (a rare exception in my minimalistic packing tendencies to take something you may not need), but God it can save your life if you’re in a bind.  If you need water and cannot get bottled water, these tablets will purify the contaminated water available.  It won’t taste great, but it’ll be the difference between contracting a gastrointestinal illness at best – deadly diseases at worst, and staying healthy.

  6. Electrolyte/Emergen-C powder packets.  Especially in summer, India is hot.  I lived in Arizona for a while, and I’ve learned what conditions lead to dehydration, and the side effects that go with it.  You should rarely be out without a bottle of water in hand, and occasionally, drop the contents of one of these packets in to replenish the salts and nutrients you’ve sweated out.  You can get by without these, but it’s a great boost if the heat has you feeling lethargic and achy.  For me, dehydration gives me headaches, so this helped greatly with that.
  7. A First-Aid Kit.  This is not a giant box you need to buy with a big red cross on the front of it; just pick up some Neosporin, band-aids, gauze with tape, some rubbing alcohol packs, Q-tips, a pair of latex gloves, tweezers, and an Ace bandage, and just keep them in a Ziploc bag.
  8. Off! Deep Woods - Pump Spray

    Off! Deep Woods – Pump

    Bug Spray.  Off! Deep Woods bug spray with DEET is excellent; it’s been tried and tested, and it’s the best.  I’m pretty sure I sweat sugar because mosquitoes, spiders, and everything else that bites come from miles away to bite me.  But, I wore Off! Deep Woods religiously head to toe for every inch of exposed skin, and I did not get one single insect bite the entire trip.  And that was during monsoon season!  Really impressive.  Now if you’re just carrying on your bag – which, let’s be honest, you should be doing – you’ll need to be mindful of the 3 oz. / 100 ml. limit on carry-on liquids.  This bug spray like most will come in larger bottles, so you’ll need to buy a clear travel-size 3-oz. spritzer (typically for pump bottle hairspray) and fill one or two of those with the bug spray.  Wear it day and night, and ration for the duration of your trip!

  9. Sunscreen.  For your face, and pretty much only your face.  A little known fact is that sunscreen and bug spray don’t play well together.  Each negates the other.  They have products on the market with sunscreen and bug spray combined…But they don’t work well.
  10. To solve the problem of sun exposure by wearing minimal sunscreen (something my fair-skinned self needs), pack clothing that’s loose but covers your arms and legs.  The idea of covering up in this kind of heat does sound crazy and counterintuitive, yes I know, but odds are, with the overcast of the monsoon, you’ll get sunburned wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and then the rest of the trip, you’ll be miserable.  Most days, I wore jeans and a long-sleeved thin cotton blouse and tank top – I was protected from the sun and somewhat against bugs.  But given the choice – bug spray vs. sunscreen – bug spray is more important.  A sunburn is no fun, but contracting dengue fever from an infected mosquito is deadly.
    1. On a side note: BEFORE YOU GO, buy a bottle of insect repellant for clothing and gear, and spray it on heavily several days before to give it time to air out.  This was a godsend!  Insects can bite through a thin, loosely threaded shirt I’ve been told, but that never happened when I did this.  After clothing has been treated, it can last several weeks through several washes and still maintain its repelling qualities.  I’m convinced this helped me.  Plus, if you can only bring 3 oz. of bug spray liquid, you’ll need a lot less of it if you’re mostly covered up.  Be sure to cover up for bed too.
    2. Chloe didn’t apply bug spray regularly.  …And frequently had itchy bug bites.
  11. Insect Repellent Strip to hang in your hotel room.  I can’t emphasize enough: in this part of the world, the odds of contracting a life-threatening and/or lifelong illness without taking any precautions are frighteningly high.  Hot Shot brand is supposed to be good; the one we used was one Chloe picked up in India – but I don’t know the brand.
  12. Neck pillow.  You’re going to be on a plane for at least 30 hours round trip, and that’s if you’re leaving from the east coast.  You’ll get ample use out of this.  Added bonus?  It comes in handy when your hotel room pillow is icky and has spiders under it.
  13. A digital camera.  I love film.  The real stuff that you have to treat with chemicals to make pictures.  But for simplicity’s sake, a digital camera is the way to go.
  14. A converter for India/Asia travel.  Charge your electronics when there isn’t a brownout.
    India Plug Adapter (for USA)

    India Plug Adapter (for USA)

    Check Amazon.com for them; you can usually find them for a couple of dollars and free shipping.

  15. A small flashlight.  Not that Home Depot, garage-sized beast, but a little one that’s a few inches long and fits in your purse or pocket.  This came in handy for me when there was a brownout at night just as I needed the restroom.
  16. A small umbrella.  Especially if you go during monsoon season.  I recommend Totes micro-umbrellas – they are tiny and light; they can be found in many department stores or online for about $10.00-$20.00.
  17. A pair of sandals/flip flops, and a pair of trainers/sneakers.  I never wore the sneakers, but was glad I had them.  With a long-sleeved shirt and long jeans just rolled up over the ankle, sandals allowed the breeze to pass my feet, which was enough to stay cool.
  18. Two pairs of pants: one you’re wearing on the plane, and another for if/when your current pair gets soaking wet for some reason.  Note I don’t include “if the first pair gets dirty.”  …Everything’s going to get dirty on Day 1.
  19. About 4 loose and long-sleeved shirts.  For a two-week trip, this is all you really need.
  20. Enough undies for every day.  You don’t want to have to find a Laundromat here.  If you’re trusting enough, many hotels – even the micro-budget hotels that we stayed in – offer laundry service for a few dollars equivalent in rupees, and you can have your clothes laundered.  I was just afraid I wouldn’t get them back in time before we left to do that.  But Chloe did it regularly and once while I was there, and she never had a problem.
  21. Pajamas.  Continuing the ‘cover up’ theme, this will help protect you against bug bites at night, when mosquito activity is at its highest.  And remember to wear socks or bug spray on your feet.  (I know, sexy, right?)
  22. A hat!  Since you can’t wear bug spray in your hair.  A bug or a tick in your hair and scalp won’t be easily spotted.  (This precaution is compliments of a Costa Rica Bot Fly article.)  Wearing a hat protects against this, clearly, and also shields your face from the unforgiving sun.  Plus, locals will tell you that you look like a princess!  This happened to me three times.
  23. Mini-hairbrush.  Ever notice how bulky and not squishy a full-sized hairbrush is?  Get a mini, purse-fitting travel brush, and bring that instead of your normal brush(es).  You’re going to India and you’re probably just going to throw your hair back in the aforementioned hat and be on your merry way.  You probably won’t care as much when you get there as you do right now.  Chloe didn’t even have a brush, and she always looked pretty. 
  24. A towel…if you’re hitting the low-budget hotel route.  The hotels we stayed at were steps above the hostel level (with private bath and sheets), but they still didn’t provide towels.
  25. Toilet paper.  Okay, don’t bring this with you, unless you feel the need to possess the most well traveled TP on the planet, but do be sure to buy this at any random general shop in town before you get to your hotel.  This is also not a standard in the lower budget spots.
  26. iPod/iPhone/MP3 music player.  There’s a lot of solo time – traveling on flights, buses, trains…it’s nice to have a soundtrack.
  27. Speaking of iPhones…  If you cannot bear to be disconnected for an extended period of time, contact your wireless carrier and buy an International Package – usually allows for certain number of megabytes of data, texts, lower price-per-minute phone calls, etc…for a flat rate.  Plans vary.  You should be able to terminate the service when you return at no penalty.  Just be sure to check any restrictions before signing up.
  28. Peanut butter.  (and a little plastic knife.)  Hopefully you like peanut butter.  This is a random one because again, in a bind or just because it’s yummy, you have a nonperishable, compact-sized snack (get a mini-jar!) that sticks to your ribs and provides protein and fat – key ingredients that help satiate appetite.  When would you need this, you wonder?  When would you go so long without a chance to grab a bite?  I was in this situation twice in 4 days: on the (unexpected) 8-hour bus ride to Agra, and then the 12-hour train ride to Varanasi.  I had grabbed some crackers for the train, and it was the perfect snack.  If peanut butter doesn’t strike your fancy, try to bring energy bars or something that doesn’t take up much room that can nourish you for a long stretch of time.  Your stomach – likely battered and bruised from the spicy foods and water exposure – will thank you.

Along with the must-haves, below is a list of things to avoid.  Save yourself aggravation and headaches with this list also written from experience and observations.

DO NOT Take With You:

  1. A swimsuit.  There is no body of water in India that you should be swimming in.
  2. Shampoo and conditioner.  While any low budget hotel will not have these amenities, you can still stop at any street shop and pick some up for 1/10 the cost of American products.  And you’re not lugging it halfway around the world with you either.  Save the space of your quart-sized airplane liquids bag for bug spray.
  3. A hair dryer.  You’re in India.  It’s hot.  Your hair will dry all by itself.  Not to mention, it’s bulky for your one carry on.  This goes for hairspray too – that actually draws mosquitoes to you.  Notice a theme here…don’t worry about your hair in India.
  4. Cigarettes if you smoke (but you shouldn’t, just saying).  Packs in India can be 75¢.
  5. A laptop.  You’re just asking for problems.  You’ll likely not be able to connect to WiFi; if you get caught in a downpour with your luggage, it can get wet and then you’re screwed; and it’s extra weight and bulk that you’re going to tire of faster than you think.  The outlets are different and you won’t find a surge protector, and the power goes out frequently if you do try to charge your Mac or PC.  Plus, if you’re constantly on your laptop, you’re not seeing India.
  6. High heels.  Really?  If I need to explain this then you should not go to India.
  7. More than one bag and personal item.  For your own sanity and ease, I can’t emphasize this enough.  Make it work.
  8. Expensive and flashy jewelry.  You’ll most likely stand out enough in the poverty-stricken areas you visit simply for being western, white, or black – looking and dressing differently from them.  You’ll have beggars and peddlers desperate for a piece of you.  Don’t blame them, but don’t magnify that attention either; leave the sparkly diamond ring and Tag Hauer watch at home.
  9. A fanny pack.  Because it’s not 1985.
  10. And this goes for any trip:  Don’t take anything with you that you couldn’t bear to lose.  Leave it safe at home!

Movies To Watch Before You Go 

These really will give you a sense of the people, the pulse, and the chaos of India – for better and for worse.

  1. Slumdog Millionaire – a teenage orphan who ends up on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire,” Jamal is accused of cheating after being able to answer nearly every question correctly by reflecting upon his tumultuous childhood experiences.
  2. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – several aging British retirees seek change and financial savings by relocating to a hotel in India, that isn’t quite as the brochure described.

General Tips & Advice

  1. Drink only bottled water that is sealed when it’s given to you.  Bottles brought to your table opened can have very easily been refilled with contaminated tap water.  It’s a poor country for most; some cut corners when they can.
  2. Be wary of open juices offered at restaurants; they are sometimes watered down with, you guessed it, contaminated tap water.
  3. Do not eat street food.  Just trust me on this one.  Chloe ate it and never had a problem; I’ve read horror stories saying otherwise.  It’s not worth risking Delhi Belly – you’ll be laid up and miserable for days.
  4. I won’t tell you not to give a hungry child money or food.  But I will say this: if you do, be prepared for a dozen children to come out of the woodwork and ask the same – and expect the same.  And pester you until you want to slap somebody.  You will have an entourage for several blocks.  It’s difficult to get away from them, once you open up that door.  Most organizations will also advise against giving beggars money, arguing that it fuels the problem.
  5. Know that if you ask directions, there’s a fair chance that whoever gave you the directions would like a tip.  Not much, but something.  It’s your call on that one.
  6. Ease into eating.  Food is different here; spicier, and the sanitary conditions just aren’t what they are in the U.S.  Not saying you’ll get sick, but it happens frequently.
  7. Don’t eat salads.  Or at the very least, be really, really careful about eating salads in restaurants and anything that could be served fresh (uncooked) that would likely have been rinsed in water.  That’s how Chloe got sick: raw veggies were sprinkled on her pizza after the pizza came out of the oven.
  8. You’ll be expected to provide your passport information on a sheet when you arrive at hotels.  This seems to be a standard and common practice.
  9. DO NOT give your cell phone number to anyone!  Including your hotel at registration.  Give a fake number if you have to.  When I got back to New York, I started receiving calls from India at 3:00, 4:00, 5:00 in the morning – of course it was the afternoon in India.  Sometimes I would answer, and no one would speak on the other end.  I would say who is this, please stop calling, etc., but it kept happening.  I’d block one number through my mobile carrier, and then they’d call from another number.  Ridiculous.  After I returned the call at now 4:00am their time – calling India is not cheap, thank you very much – I left a stern, direct message to stop calling me, it’s the wrong number, etc.  Finally, after 5 weeks of middle-of-the-night calls, the calls stopped.  Maybe they loved that I left a message, who knows.  But there were 3 places I wrote down that number, and they were all hotels.  Lesson learned.
  10. If you want to follow local customs, don’t eat with your left hand.  Traditionally, your left hand is used as toilet paper.  Enough said.
  11. When you get to a new city, find out where there is a 24-hour medical facility, be it a hospital or clinic – if one even exists.  This would have eased Chloe’s and my anxiety when we needed it but had no idea where to go.  We got lucky; but easily might not have.
  12. I’ve said it before… pack light.  Pack light enough to carry what you have on your back.  The unpaved, muddy streets of India are not conducive to roller bags.  And you’re more likely to be bothered by hustlers trying to “carry your bags for you” for a fee.  In addition, if you hail a rickshaw or pedicab to transport you around, there won’t be much room for you, a companion, and several pieces of luggage.
  13. Do your research before you go.  Get an idea of where you want to visit, make a list of places you’d like to see, and jot down a few hotels for every city you’re visiting from either online or a Lonely Planet guide – be sure if you pick up a copy, that it’s current.  You can plan and book hotels ahead of time as well.
  14. Wear bug spray.  (Yes, again I say this.)  According to the Gates Foundation who extensively funds malaria research, a study in 2010 revealed that 655,000 people had died from malaria, and over 200 million were living with the disease – those being conservative estimates compared to my other research.  That’s malaria alone – that number is even higher if you include dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, etc.  Again, WEAR INSECT REPELLANT like your life depends on it.  Because it does!

It’s a lot, I admit, but I hope all of this doesn’t scare you off.  Take from it what you will.  My pure intention is to prepare you for what I am sure is a place unlike any you’ve experienced if you haven’t traveled outside of North America and Europe: to set your frame of mind and to open you up to something so different.  Not bad, just different.  It will be a culture shock.  But if you’re prepared, it can be an awesome culture shock.  And if you’re prepared, you can handle anything.  Don’t be afraid to take the plunge – you won’t regret it!  And think of all the stories you’ll come back with.

2 Comments

  1. Wow, this is a keeper!! Thanks for the brilliant post, Stephanie. India is definitely a place on my list of places to go and this info is invaluable. Thanks for sharing your experiences as well. My eyes are opened.

  2. Fabulous information. I look forward to the next article. I am a total fan!

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