By Marcee Murray King
After almost 50 years of dreaming it, I finally went to India in the summer of 2017.
Amazingly, it went off without a hitch! Truly, the only things that went wrong were quite minor inconveniences. A lot of the reason it went off so well was truly the planning, and it that was all in the details. People teased me about all my research, lists and organization, but it paid off and made for a relatively stress-free adventure.
Following is a list of things I got right, and some things I wish I had known and a few things I would do differently next time…hopefully it will help you with your adventure!
Wondering What to Pack?
1. Passport, Visa and Driver’s License
I took took two copies of each of these, carrying one copy in my suitcase and one in my carry-on. I emailed copies of them to my husband so they could also be accessed by me online if I needed. It was the right back up for my driver’s license, but not for my passport and visa. Every place I stayed, I had to be registered and they all needed copies of these two. It is the law, from what I can understand, in both southern and northern India.
I ended up making 10 copies of each while at one ashram early on and while I didn’t need all of them, I was prepared. Next time I might not get so lucky and find a copier easily, so I will just arrive with a bunch of copies of them.
I had a solid itinerary made for my trip, all typed up onto a calendar and color coded. It included flight numbers, airports I was flying from, names and contact numbers of the inns, homestay and ashrams I would be in. I sent copies to my family members so they would know where I was expected to be and when and, again, emailed them out so I could get access to them if I lost the (two) copies I took with me.
The one time I completely deviated from my plan and took off for a week to someplace totally different I sent a note to all my family members with the new contact info. It gave everyone worrying about me a feeling of safety, and made me feel more secure having a place I was expected to arrive every day.
Bug Spray: We took natural spray-on, but my friend also took some Deep Woods Off Wipes with DEET. I gave up on the natural stuff and used them because they were so much more effective and a few places the mosquitoes were brutal…and I really wanted to avoid malaria and Dengue fever. I never use that stuff normally. My friends who brought the DEET wipes ended up in Delhi and caught Dengue there. Trust me, you want to avoid it if you can.
Soap: I brought one small bottle of Dr. Bronner’s and one bar of regular soap. I ended up not really using the bar soap because it was damp and gross in the humidity. If I did it again, I would take two small Bronner’s bottles. It was great for washing my hands and body as well as washing my laundry, and easy to carry with me every day.
Yes, laundry was done by hand. I was very frugal with the soap, and even though one was enough for my six week trip, I actually used up my last bit of it on my last couple of days in India. Since I don’t use shampoo or conditioner, these weren’t an issue for me.
Hand Sanitizer & Wet Wipes: I took both. I hate regular hand santizer, so I took the natural stuff. At the same time, I took a larger package of wet wipes and always carried a few in a ziplock with me. For those moments when I just really felt the need to clean the hands or wipe the table down, I was prepared.
Take your toothbrush/toothpaste/tampons or pads/deodorant, etc.
Ibuprofen: Hard to find, so take some.
4. Odds & Ends
Sheet “Sleeping Bag”: They don’t provide top sheets in India, and since I assume they don’t wash the blankets in between guests (well, they don’t in America) I was really glad to have it. Used it every single day.
Spork: Take one, just in case. I was a bit surprised at how often I used mine.
Duffle bag: I found a tiny traveling duffle bag that folded up on itself. I only traveled with one suitcase over there, so it made bringing extra stuff home easy.
Plastic Water Bottle: Keep well hydrated! It can be hot!
Bandana & Peppermint Oil: If it is really hot, you can get a bandana wet and put it around your neck to cool off. A few drops of peppermint oil will help cool you as well.
Shoes: Really think about what you are doing and when you are traveling. I will do my footwear totally differently next time, but I am not yet sure what I would take. I traveled in monsoon season, and so my Teva flip flops were worthless in the rain, as the soles get super slick. The shoes I wear at home for kayaking were perfect in terms of allowing water to flow through and being grippy on the rocks, but they gave me blisters as they aren’t made for walking miles when wet. I would probably take waterproof hiking boots, some type of waterproof flip flops and then my Teva’s for when it is nice.
Sturdy thin piece of rope and clothes pins: I was lucky to have places to hang laundry at a few places I stayed, but I did need to string a clothesline once and was glad to have it with me. It didn’t take up much space, but was so necessary during the monsoons when everything gets wet.
Umbrella: You can buy a small collapsable umbrella when you get there, or take one with you. It isn’t just for keeping the rain off—it is an amazing way to block the sun, providing portable shade!
I know that some people thought me paranoid, but I had small locks holding all my zippers together and used them all the time. One person I was buying something from on the streets told me how smart I was to have them on my daypack, and I always kept my bags in the room locked. Only use combo locks, as you don’t want to worry about losing keys. I also took a long bike chain with a combo on it. I envisioned my paranoid self traveling on a bus and locking my backpack to a rail as a discourager while I slept. I ended up using it instead to lock together some windows in a place I was staying, as the wood was too swollen to close them. If you were staying in an ashram or hostel with shared space, you could use this long chain lock as a discourager with your bags to attach them to a bedframe, etc.
6. Take Your Devices
I took my iPad Mini & portable keyboard as well as my Kindle with me. No regrets. I had rarely used my Kindle before, but I sort of fell in love with having a huge library in one tiny space and not having a big, heavy book slap me in the face when I fell asleep. I didn’t want to take my favorite paper travel guide with me, so I bought a digital version and put it on my iPad (color!) and Kindle, and it was great to have! Phone and charger. That was it. Small and light. Also make sure to bring an adapter to charge those devices. I bought one with a USB port as well, allowing me to charge two things at once. If you don’t take one, you won’t be able to charge anything!
7. Don’t Get Sick (Like Everyone Else!)
Every single person I know who has gone to India has gotten some stomach bug (except for two who will only eat ashram food), the two friends I traveled with some of the time and me. How did we not get sick? I like to believe it was our herbal supplements.
All three of us took the same herbal concoctions the whole time starting a few days before we left and continued to take them until they ran out after we got back. We were there for six weeks, but my friends and I were only together for two of those, and traveled separately from each other most of the time. I arrived two weeks before they did, so we had mostly different experiences while traveling.
I am vegan, and they were vegetarian, so they ate dairy. We did do “risky” things that everyone says not to do—eating fresh coconut slices, fresh young mango slices, grilled corn and toasted nuts off the streets; and ordering fresh vegetable salads in some restaurants. They had a whole meal from various street carts in Dehli. I ate lunch off of a wet banana leaf in Kerala, and they drank nothing but mountain water on a trek through the Himalayas. Not a hint of intestinal issues.
I am not saying this combo is what worked, but I will say I would do this exact regime again because nothing else explains it except luck. What did we take? All of these are 3 drops, 3 times per day:
4 oz. bottle Grapefruit Seed Extract.
1 oz. bottle Sweet Annie Tincture.
1 oz. bottle Oil of Oregano Tincture.
1 oz. bottle Wormwood or Wormwood/Black Walnut Tincture.
I also took Activated Charcoal and Papaya Enzymes along for just-in-case. Didn’t need them.
While You Are There:
8. Get a Sim Card
Having a sim card made me feel safe. Unless something has changed recently, Vodaphone offered three week packages for a very reasonable price—just enough phone call time for important important calls and to find friends, just enough internet for emergencies. It was easy to text through them or through What’s App. Well worth it, easy to use and easy to find a place to add more minutes. They even have an app that you can use to check on the amount of internet time and phone minutes that you have left. If you feel like entering a card (which I didn’t want to do) you can re-charge on the go. If you look around, you can find Wifi for free. Not all places you stay will have it on premises, and some places turn it off at a certain time at night.
9. Exchanging Money
DON’T exchange any more than you really need to at the airport when you arrive. It is a high exchange rate. Exchange just enough to get you to where you are staying and look for another place to exchange after you are settled. I had good luck with a great rate at one local travel agency when there was no bank around.
10. Getting Cash From Your Home Account
You can access ATM machines or draw cash directly through a bank, but there was a catch: I couldn’t use my MasterCard debit card to access any cash at any ATM or bank except for the State Bank of India. I could use my credit card, which was a Visa, at any place but this meant I was borrowing cash at a high interest rate. My friend had a Visa debit card and she had no problem. So, Visa was the way to go on that trip if we wanted cash. I would carry both in the future to cover my bases.
11. Don’t Expect the Same Standards of Cleanliness
There is the U.S. expectation of clean, and then there is “India clean.” I stayed in a truly dirty room (thank god for that sleeping sheet bag!), a bit questionable room and then “India clean” rooms. Two ashrams had U.S. clean. Just expect it and get used to it.
12. Dress Respectfully
This is not the United States, and you should leave your wardrobe behind. Western women often dress like they do at home, and this can make them targets of unwanted negative attention. I actually dressed in simple Indian garb almost the entire time, and it paid off. Going through one airport, the security woman questioned my clothing after she searched me. I told her I was just trying to be respectful. She smiled and said, “Good!” There are some places that are more open and not a concern. However, I always erred on the side of caution. The few times in my travels I ended up in places where there were no westerners around I was very glad I was conforming to their standards of modesty.
13. Don’t Look the Monkeys in the Eyes
Just don’t. And don’t stare at their babies. It makes them angry if you are watching their babies, and they consider it a challenge if you stare them in the eyes. Hold on to your stuff so they don’t take it.
14. Don’t Drink the Water….Unless….
Buy bottled water if you are in doubt. Make sure it is sealed. That being said, most of the places I stayed had reverse osmosis water filters, and I drank that with no issues and no hesitation. Never got sick.
15. And the TOILETS!
Take some toilet paper. My friend always takes a bunch with her because she likes the luxurious stuff. I took four rolls. I found out you can buy it all over, but it is the thin stuff and many places don’t have any toilet paper on the premises so always carry some with you. One ashram didn’t have it in the rooms but sold it on premises. Try the faucet bidet or the under-seat bidets while you are there though. I got hooked on the fresh rinse over there and have had a faucet bidet ever since coming back.
The weird toilets. There are “normal” toilets, there are squat toilets (like porcelain pits with a place for each foot on either side—they often felt more sanitary to me than the ones we use), and one place had a combo that was like we use with foot holds on each side of the toilet seat where the seat would be (after you lifted the seat) so people could choose what they preferred.
Don’t say, “I would never use a squatty potty” because you will really be limiting the available toilets. On an overnight bus to MacLeodGanj I used some of the most disgusting toilets of all time and had no choice…one was literally a drain hole minus the drain in a tile floor. Had I not been open to the adventure and willing to pee freely, I would have missed out on going to the Dalai Lama’s temple and exploring that whole region. That was one of my favorite parts of the trip.
A few extra thoughts:
16. Damn! The Bland Food!
I had fine food everywhere. I had great, simple Indian dal, etc., but the type of Indian food I love? Well, I only had four amazing Indian meals my entire stay, and one of them I helped cook. I figured out why on my next to last day when out traveling around with a local Indian friend. He ordered me lunch up in the mountains—a chana masala over samosas. It was amazing! As I was eating it, there was just enough heat to get the sniffles a bit and have the edges of my mouth tingle slightly.
As I shoveled in the food, he asked me if it was too hot. I said no, it was perfect! He cracked up laughing and told me that it was almost too hot for him, and then said the reason I had found the food so disappointing is that I was being served Indian food for Westerners with no heat, and that on my next trip to ask for it to be made for Indians. So there you go. Like hot Indian curries? Gotta ask for it. Don’t spend six weeks disappointed like I did!
17. All the Little Geckos…
There are small ones all over…They get into houses. One jumped out of my closet at me. They eat bugs, and they are harmless, but they freak folks out. Indians sort of see them as we see mice.
18. What’s With the Bobble Head?
Folks shake their heads no for “no,” but when it is a yes, they sort of roll their heads around like the “bobble head” statues that used to ride on the dashes of cars. At first I thought this meant “I don’t know” or “Maybe.” I was really confused.
19. Curse the Firm Beds.
According to my Indian friend, they believe a firm bed will keep your back healthier. I think their beds lead to an early death! These were the thinnest mattresses I have ever slept on! a couple of places were thankfully a bit thicker, but I didn’t get any good rest and ached the whole time. Next time, I will take a little extra cushion and bring along my backpacking sleeping pad to inflate to add a little more padding.
Well there you go! Have you been to India? If you want to share some tips I haven’t addressed, please comment!
Editor: Dana Gornall
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