Why go?

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So many people are discouraged to go to India for so many silly reasons.  You hear bad things on the news about India, you are afraid of getting sick, you are worried you will be the only non-hippie, you are worried it is really dirty.  Well, if we all thought like that, we would stay cooped up in our house watching TV and surfing the net.

Out of all the places I have been to in my life, India still holds a very special place in my heart.  It’s full of color, has super friendly and curious people, the most amazing food (and street food!), and even more amazing sights.  Locals are so darn friendly, and the experiences you have will be so darn unique.  It is definitely not as hard you think it will be as long as you travel smart.

Surviving India on a Budget:
So you are not staying at the Taj Hotel and you can’t afford to eat at the fancy places Padma Lakshmi goes to… How do you stay street safe and stomach safe?
1.  Obviously, never drink the tap water.  Only buy water that has the protective cap PLUS the extra plastic bit that you tear off. (I learned this the hard way as I think I once purchased water that was refilled with tap water during my first trip).
2.  When eating at restaurants, go to places where there are lots of people, particularly families and children.  They are bound to be safe!
3.  Avoid salads, street fruit that may have been washed in water, and anything else that may have been washed in water.
4.  Buy Odomos bug spray when you arrive.  It has DEET in it, but it works and is dirt cheap in India.  I also liked having my bug pants at night.
5.  Buy train tickets in advance and be sure to get at least first or second class.  If they sell out, try a travel agency or ask about overnight buses.  I actually prefer them to trains!
6.  Bananas and toilet paper are your best friend on long journeys.
7.  Fresh coconut water from street vendors is dirt cheap, refreshing, and great for those dealing with an upset stomach.
8.  Particularly for women, stay covered up!  This means wearing AT MINIMUM short sleeves, and pants or a skirt down to at least the knee.  No low cut tops or crop tops either.  Be more generous with your clothing than you think you are.
9.  Japanese people got it right with the sweat rag, aka tenugui.  Carry a small cloth with you to wipe up your sweat.  You will feel so much better!
10.  If you are vegetarian, eating in India is simple.  I particularly liked restaurants that would label themselves as ‘pure veg’ as you know meat doesn’t touch a single dish here. (By the way, I haven’t been a vegetarian since 2003, and eating vegetarian here was simple, even for carnivorous Greg).

Jodhpur, India

Jodhpur, India

Things to keep in mind:
1.  Plan the regions you will go to first, and double check that it isn’t during monsoon season or crazy hot above 40 degree celcius weather.
2.  Try to keep as many small bills as possible.  It is sometimes hard to break bigger bills.
3.  Know where you are going and the approximate distances so you can bargain for your rickshaw accordingly.
4.  Keep some large scarves as a liner sheet in case sheets look dodgy, and large ziplocs to protect your clothes from bedbugs.
5.  Wear closed two shoes for walking in the cities.

Before heading to India, be sure to apply for an Indian Visa.  I have broken down an India itinerary for 2-3 months, for those wanting to do the Golden Triangle and South India.  There is of course trekking in the north, but this itinerary will only focus on the other areas.

I met a few travelers in Sri Lanka that were going to visit India for the first time.  To avoid the shock of India, they decided to start in Sri Lanka, then South India and go north.  I also met a couple other travelers who were worried about traveling in India and started south and then went north.  If you are nervous about traveling in India, and if the weather works, I suggest starting in the south and going north.
The following is a suggested itinerary, separated between the north and south.
The North (The Golden Triangle)
I think you have to have your guard up in the north, but the sights are way more rewarding here.  I was sad that I didn’t get to visit this area again when we went the second time around.
-Fly into Delhi and only spend a couple days here to see the Red Fort, Fatipur Sikri?
– Head to Agra to see the Great Taj Mahal.  If you are lucky, head to the back of the building, and you may be able to catch a boat ride with a local along the waters of Taj Mahal.
– Meander the awesome blue town, Jodhpur, one of my favorite cities in India.  Visit the fort and just walk around the myriad of Blue.
– Take an air conditioned train to Jaisalmer.  Stay outside of the fort area, as it’s collapsing! You can find fabulous deals in gorgeous Indian decor places that look like boutique hotels for nothing, but think of the consequences!  An absolute highlight is to take an overnight camel ride in the Thar Desert, sleeping directly under the stars.
Pushkar is a pleasant and interesting pilgrimage site, with a large ghat, and interesting streets full of characters.  No visit is complete without eating/staying at 7th Heaven.  You can thank me later.  If you are there in …. book your accommodation in advance to see the annual Camel Festival.
Varanasi is an absolute must do in India.  Some of the most amazing and colorful sights are seen here in the Ganges.  Watch people play, swim, take bath, burn the deceased, do laundry, and other activities in these waters.
– Some other places people seem to visit are Udaipur, the land of the floating palace?, and Jaipur, also known as the Pink City, which definitely didn’t interest me much.

fort worker copyThe South
This area is much easier to manage, has excellent food, and is much more easy going.
– If I were to live in India, I would definitely live in the vibrant city of Mumbai.  The city holds some of the best street food in the whole country!  You can also see Haji Ali Shrine, a waterfront shrine crowded by many beggars and families and pilgrimages.  There are western comforts, you can experience city life, see a huge area filled with hanging laundry, and can even do a tour of the slum from the film, Slumdog Millionaire, all for a good cause.
Motorbike through all the beaches of Goa in the north and the south.  Buy your Indian wares at the infamous Anjuna Market, and relax at the bikini friendly, Bourne Identity haunt, Palolem Beach in the south. We thought the best relaxing beach in the north was Mandrem Beach.
-Bike ride through UNESCO World Heritage Site to see ruins and boulders in Hampi.  Watch the temple’s elephant get bathed, and drink beer at chillout Hippie Island for some great views of the waters separating Hampi town from the island.
-Stop by midsize Indian city, Mysore, for some market fun, city sights, and a spectacular tour of Maharaja’s Palace.
-Head to Kochi, the Colonial Town known for Chinese fishing boats to hang about in nice cafes and restaurants.  Catered to tourists, this place seems to be popular with older travelers, but there is something for everyone here.
– Along with Munroe Island, heading to the backwaters of Alleppey in Kerala is a highlight.  Take a local ferry, do a morning excursion, or rent a houseboat overnight and see river left up close.  Go out of your way to specifically visit Munroe Island, for a homestay with hilarious and warm Vijeesh and his family, and journey on a canoe paddled by Vijeesh or his father through the calm backwaters to see village life.
– Another beach location that shouldn’t be missed is Varkala, a calm area equipped with a plethora of restaurants to keep you entertained for weeks.  Don’t leave without going to Trattoria Restaurant.
-Stop at Trivandrum to see the zoo that inspired the book Life of Pi, and then head to the bustling modern city of Bangalore to get a bit of city life.
-Visit religious town of Thiruvannamalai to see temples, pilgrims, and a possible visit to an ashram, if that is your thing.
-Eat french food to your heart’s content in French Colonial town, Pondicherry, and feel like you are in France! (so they say!)
-Stop by Backpackistan aka Mamallapuram before flying out of Chennai, to see ruins by the beach, and the gravity defying Krishna’s Butter Ball.

camel and greg silhouette copyWhat to buy
India has a lot of great things to buy, such as silk and pashmina scarves, excellent textiles such as kantha quilts, hand embroidered bed and pillow covers, leather goods, and antiques and jewelry.  I bought so many home goods, I sent a box back to America.  Well worth it!

What to eat
I already love Indian food, so I felt like I was in heaven.  Our favorites were:
-The infamous thali: A tray of a bunch of individual refillable curries, rice, chapati, pickles, raita, and some desserts. If you don’t like one curry, you are bound to like one of the other several curries that are served.  Usually only available during lunchtime, this is the best bang for your rupee, and is absolutely delicious.
Aloo ghobi: A potato and cauliflower curry from the north.  We usually paired it with naan, rice, or sometimes a parotta, a flaky delicious bread.
– Hands down, my favorite street food is the vada pav.  An amazingly delicious fried potato patty, in a soft bun, drenched in delicious cilantro sauce.  Definitely seek this quick bite in Mumbai.
Masala Dosa: What I like to call the savory crepe, the Masala Dosa is a delicious, crispy, and paper thin crepe, filled with vegetable curry, often served with a coconut chutney.  My go-to for breakfast.
– If you can’t handle eating another curry, try the veg noodles.  Reminds me of really simple Chinese takeout, and available at most restaurants.

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Also, don’t shy away from Indian TV.  A couple commercials that got stuck in our head:
Wink or Blink:
Gaana, Gaana, Gaana

I can’t say this enough, but India will absolutely blow your socks off.  A cheap vacation with excellent food, amazing sights, and friendly people. Out of all the countries I have been to, India is definitely in my top five!


What I learned: We visited South India during peak season, and the Golden Triangle during the hottest time of year.  We got sick a few times in the Golden Triangle, so be very careful about not eating at places with high turnover, especially during slower times of the year.  Our stomachs were super happy in the south!