INDIA: TRAVEL TIPS

Prior to our booking, the verdict for Jyoti Singh Pandey’s assailants were convicted, sparking nation-wide protests for female security; I read threads and threads on message boards about women being groped in public; and my cousin told me a personal story where her friend was disrespected by multiple men in Goa. So naturally, I was skeptical. But, despite all this, and with assurance from family of friends, my best friend and I booked our ten day, three city trip to India. And guess what?

My experience proved them all incorrect.

For any Westerner, it will be a culture shock. The smell. The driving. The density of well…everything. Did I mention the driving? But, as you’ll find out, it is wondrous.

There is so much to learn from Indian culture – which is impressively vast, diverse, and welcoming. I have never gone on a vacation and learned so much from complete strangers. I watched joy and excitement of a homeless girl pour out over the luxury of rubbing antibacterial soap in her arms (I really wish I captured this moment of honesty); I learned about the impact the Moghul Empire had on shaping present-day India; and I finally caught on to the Indian food craze, which was a HUGE step for me. India taught me that absolutely nothing should be taken for granted and, most importantly, everything should be experienced with an open mind and soul.

You can read about my experience in
Mumbai, Jaipur, and Delhi.

Cow in India Streets

Now that I know how it feels to land in a place that feels like worlds away, below are a few travel tips that I wish I had known before going.


TRAVEL TIPS

  • Dress conservatively. If you’re a woman, make sure your shoulders and knees are covered at all times. I was really hot at Elephanta Caves, so I wrapped my light cardigan around my shoulders, so they were slightly exposed. I still received unwanted stares, nonetheless. Palazzo pants and maxi skirts will be great to avoid feeling under-dressed without being overbearing.
  • Be comfortable with bargaining. Bargaining is a lifestyle. My first tip from an Indian traveler was: “Don’t even go down half, go down to a third of their suggestion and then they’ll meet you halfway.” I was too weak to try this, so don’t be like me and pay the asking price!
  • Prepare yourself for extreme pollution. The pollution is intense. India ranks 174th (out of 178) in Air Quality by the Environmental Performance Index. Avoid exposure by covering your mouth with a scarf or small washrag when outside for a prolonged period.
  • Plan your travel accordingly. The best time to travel (to beat the heat and their monsoon season) is in October and November. I went in the middle of November and had 75 F degree weather, with cooler nights. Bring a couple sweaters if you go around this time.
  • Learn the art of taxis. There are two important questions to ask your taxi driver: 1) Are you metered of fixed? Most airports have a fixed rate, but city drivers will do either. If you can, take metered – they are always cheaper. And of course, rickshaws, also known as tuk-tuks, are the cheapest. And 2) Do you know how to get to (insert destination here)? This will save countless headaches as the driver pulls over and asks every pedestrian directions. Which happened in 95% of my taxi rides.  However, your taxi driver can be your best friend during the short (or long depending on traffic) ride. Make conversation. Most people have a decent grasp of English. Plus, they’ll pull over to grab you a cup of chai and what’s wrong with that?

In Jaipur, taxis work on a commission as well as their driving rate. Most taxi drivers paid hotels to guarantee business and if you pay them for the day, (they will try to convince you to let them be their driver for the day – it’s not expensive and it is really convenient), they will take you to a textile store where they receive a certain percentage of your purchases. You are under no obligation to purchase anything, of course, but it is interesting to see.

  • Keep sacred places sacred. Do not bring any food to the Taj Mahal or any temple, for that matter. I can’t stress this enough. Unless you plan on participating in a ritual where food is given to the respective deity, food should not be brought with you. Also, the security at the Taj is really tight and, surprisingly (or not), better at most of their domestic airports. They’ll throw away your food. AND your selfie stick!
  • Stay clean! Anti-bacterial wipes will save you in situations where an outhouse is your only available bathroom. It’s also really useful to wipe your feet when places require you to take off your shoes and socks. For the temples that allow you to wear socks, bring an extra pair of socks to throw on. Your feet can pick up myriads of bacteria, so throw an extra pair in your bag to slip on!
  • If you want to budget: Between traveling, sightseeing, eating, and shopping, I spent around $40 USD/day. I did shop a lot and used taxis for transportation, except in Delhi where the subway system is super simple. Food and lodging in India is incredibly cheap, so you can easily get by comfortably in India with less.
  • Consult your doctor before you go. This isn’t necessary, but it will prepare you for any viruses that you may be at risk to. Hepatitis A and Typhoid is prevalent in India, but you should be safe as long as you eat cooked food and avoid their water. My doctor prescribed me an antibiotic for typhoid, if I were to get exposed while I was there, and also gave me medication for Malaria. Mosquitoes shouldn’t be an issue if you go in the cooler months, but should be a concern if you travel during Indian summers.

INDIA: MUMBAI

How can I describe Mumbai? I’d like to call it a living paradox. Extreme poverty surrounded by vast wealth; hungry citizens who slept next to street food vendors; “No honk please” bumper stickers encompassed by cars that would honk anyway; the smell of smoke clashing with the smell of curry and Mumbai’s most popular street food, bhel puri. The city is very much alive.

Vendor in Mumbai selling Peacock feathers

Sleeping Mumbai Taxi Driver

Mumbai is a great city to acclimate yourself to the Indian culture. You’ll find plenty of Western luxuries, done with an Indian flair, especially if you stay near the Taj Mahal Hotel in the Colaba area. So, if you’re accustomed to Western culture, like me, you’ll freak out over the Starbucks behind the Taj, but you won’t see any native drinking a Starbucks frap though – take a peak in their cups and you’ll smell the sweet scent of chai.  Surprises like these exist all over Mumbai and one place to really see it is in Malabar Hills, the area of some of the wealthiest and poorest citizens of India.

Malabar Hills is an absolutely beautiful walk. If you map it out, you can figure out a best possible route and, regardless of what you decide, try to end the day at Chowpatty Beach to watch the sunset. Chowpatty Beach is not for the faint of heart though – you’ll find starving children running around naked and shoeless, screaming for their parents. It’s definitely a huge shock and one that really can’t be described in words; but if you have the opportunity, try not to miss out on this experience. You’ll find beauty amongst all the sorrow.

Couple watching the sunset on Chowpatty Beach.
A couple watching the sunset at Chowpatty Beach.

There’s plenty of more to see in Malabar Hills, including the terraced, Hanging Gardens, which pretty much seems like a work in progress.  It’s really fun to bring kids since there a bunch of animal-carved hedges, but the best part about here is the view it offers. If you head to the southeast end of the park, you can get a view of the Arabian Sea with Mumbai’s business district in the background.

Enjoying the view at Hanging Gardens

You can also find incredible temples in this area. One of the oldest temples in the city called, Babulnath Mandir,  resides just hidden off the main road (to get here, follow the  entrance from Babalnuth Road and climb a series of steps), and it is one of the most intricate temples ever. It’s majestic. The guards here are pretty strict with pictures, so I couldn’t snap any using my camera and, like all Hindu temples, shoes and socks are not to be worn (you can get away with wearing socks by telling the guards your feet hurt). In addition, you can also check out a Jain Temple (which is further south of Hanging Gardens) and Walkeshwar Temple by the holy Banganga Water Tank.

One of the greatest attractions in Mumbai is the caves at Elephanta Island. Seriously, this is a must. You don’t exactly need a tour guide for this, but if you really want to learn about the history of the caves, one will probably be a good idea! However, you can get a decent gist of the sculptures through guide books, or you can pick up one in the shops leading up to the caves. Beware: there is a LONG row of vendors after getting off the ferry and before going to the caves and they will try to make deals with you to guarantee a sale. For instance, my friend was interested in a carving of the sleeping Buddha, so the vendor gave her a little elephant as a symbolic contract of her future purchase and nearly chased her down because she decided against it last minute. So, just beware of really insistent sellers, but keep in mind everything they are selling on the island, you can easily pick up in Mumbai.

Elephanta Caves 2

Elephanta Caves

So, aside from the 16 foot sculptures, the coolest (and my favorite!) part about Elephanta Island? THE MONKEYS! Seriously, it’s like Planet of the Apes. They were EVERYWHERE! One robbed me of my lunch! And another robbed a man of his orange soda! (Actually, this was the same monkey, other monkeys just followed him and cheered him on). So, if you want to be entertained and NOT endangered, do not eat in front of them or taunt them with food. Just a warning.

Monkey at Elephanta Island
Elephanta Monkey 3

Finally, a trip to Mumbai will not be complete unless you shop! I shopped mostly on the street located a couple blocks away from the Taj Mahal Hotel (it’s called Shahid Bhagat Singh Marg), although I heard Fashion Street and Chor Bazaar were excellent as well. I wish time wasn’t so restricted, because the collections of scarves and jewelry available to purchase are endless!

There’s plenty of more to explore in Mumbai. I love visiting countries twice, so whatever I missed, I’m sure I’ll see again – but if you have any leisure time, stop to watch a pickup Cricket game occurring by the University grounds, or enjoy a stroll through the University’s campus.  There is so much to discover and experience in Mumbai and it really was the perfect city to become accustomed to Indian culture. Being said, it really helped me when I arrived at my next destination, Jaipur, which you can read about here!

Cricket in Mumbai
Worker at Babulnath Mandir