Many travellers believe India is the ultimate travel destination. India is guaranteed to challenge and reward visitors with rich cultural experiences. Some visitors remain for months and even years, while others find it difficult to adapt to city challenges, like noise, pollution, and so on. Some vow to never return. My mother introduced me and my siblings to Indian culture when I was probably ten years old. Her best friend, Sheh, was a successful business woman from New Delhi. She had married a British fella and relocated to London. My family would visit her at her London home, and she shared her culture with us.
We would watch Bollywood romance movies, and these often entailed infectious choreographed traditional dance as well as fight scenes, jealous lovers and beautiful actors. Sneh was a fine cook, and would invite us to eat amazing native Delhi dishes. Brits already have a love of Indian food, but this home cooking stirred my appreciation for fine, traditional Indian food at a young age. The icing on the cake was that Sneh would bring my mother traditional Indian clothing gifts, which my mother cherished, and so mama would dress up on occasion in a punjabi suit, or her bright gold and green sari!
Since childhood, I have longed to visit India. I’ve now watched countless documentaries on various topics, including the brilliant train system in Mumbai, women cops standing for local women’s rights, and tourist ‘travel love’ for Goa.
Two months ago, I began a non-committal search on Googleflights.com for flights to Hanoi, Vietnam. After playing around with dates using some of the useful features on the site, and noting peaks and lows in pricing based on flight dates, I found a flight to Delhi for around 540,000 KRW (Korean won). I cross-referenced the flight on Skyscanner.com to confirm that the price was the same, and after reserving time off from work, I booked the flight. I will travel direct with Korean Air, will take approximately eight hours to get to Delhi, and seven hours to return to Seoul.
Every tourist, it seems, needs a visa to enter India. The basic e-tourist visa allows visitors to stay for a month, and costs approximately $49US. The Indiavisaonline website encourages travellers to begin the process at least four days before flying, and this entails filling out several pages on information including citizenship background, passport details, religion, and parents’ place of birth.
I had to upload a suitable head shot from a recent passport-style photograph, as well as upload a scanned image of the passport I would use while traveling. The site was very specific about the size of the files that could be uploaded, and these details made the process a little tedious. Also, I began several applications because my initial attempts didn’t seem to save.
READ, READ, READ!
The minute that I had booked my flights and started my visa application, I began to consume as much information as I could about India, and particularly, Northern India. I contacted an Indian friend, Jay, who I knew had returned from Canada to live in India, to tell him about my trip. I discovered that he was in fact living in Northern India. We decided very quickly that I’d journey out to Jodhpur from New Delhi to visit him. I began reading blog after blog, searching for relevant material using key search words on Goggle and Pintrest to find blogs, particularly on topics like, which sites to visit, solo women travel, what to eat, and so on.
I realised that there were many factors worth consideration. For example, would my power converter work in India? Where should I exchange my Korean won for Indian Rupees? If I want to dress like a local, what outfits should I consider buying there? How do I bargain in India? What is safe to consume for western stomachs? What is Delhi belly and Loperamide?
I also began finding that blogs covered topics like, who should I trust? What scams are common? What is the best way to travel? How do I buy train tickets? What is the easiest way to deal with taxis? Should I avoid meat? What goes on at a yoga ashram? What’s the scoop on sketchy hotel bed sheets? What should I pack? What does the ‘head bobble’ mean? Also, how should western women dress, and how can we avoid or address unwanted attention from men? What’s the deal with everyone wanting a photo with westerners?
WATCH, WATCH, WATCH!
I have watched numerous documentaries, particularly Kevin McCloud’s series, “Slumming It,” documenting fascinating Dharavi in Mumbai. In preparation for travel itself, I’ve really enjoyed watching GottaDoIndia. This travel show, presented by model and local Indian Sherry, introduces different cities in India in short, five minute videos that leave travellers with lots of ideas to do while visiting cities all over India. I’ve learned about recommended sites to visit and what to do there, been introduced to different restaurants and shops, and learn how to bargain while shopping.
I’ve also enjoyed watching Mark Wiens who eats his way around India. He introduces many different Indian dishes, identifies ingredients, and lists clearly where to find the food trucks and restaurants that he visits. Just watching him eat is pleasurable because his face lights up with each mouthful.
For learning about how what to expect as a foreign backpacker traveling around India, I really like watching Gabriel Traveler. He takes viewers through the cities he travels to, listing his living costs, stories on the road, and scams to watch for. I find his delivery style engaging and his tips, indispensable.
Before traveling, I intend to watch a documentary on a brief history of India, to get a chronological sense of events that somewhat define the multiple cultures found within this ancient, religious and caste-based society. I want to understand more about Hindu, Muslim and Sikh religions here to understand a little about diverse Indian identity.
JOIN ONLINE TRAVEL COMMUNITIES
A few months ago, I began to take my travel writing seriously, and as a result, I joined a few social media forums. These included travel forums for people who travel often and want to communicate with other travellers. On Facebook, I joined Female Travel Bloggers, Travel Buddies Korea, Ultimate Travel Group, Girls Love Travel and Bloggers in Korea. Being part of these online communities has been particularly useful.
On a number of occasions, I’ve requested members to post blogs they’ve written on destinations that I plan to visit. Additionally, I’ve asked for advice on topics like acquiring an entry visa to India, and buying Indian Rupees. These forums are supportive, and I’ve found many informative blogs in this way.
BEGIN A TRAVEL-INDIA JOURNAL
My current two week trip entails flying into Delhi, and heading straight to Jodhpur (Ragasthan). After a few days, I’ll enjoy a short stay in Jaipur, and thereafter head to Agra. My last few days will be spent exploring Delhi. My trip entails quite a lot, so as I began reading blogs about these cities, I realized that I was gaining a lot of information that I would not necessarily remember. As a result, I began keeping a diary exclusively for my trip to India. I started taking notes on places of interest and keeping all the information together as a way to keep track of all the ideas and tips that I’d like to recall once I arrive at my destination.
Thus far, I’ve got pages of notes on travel tips. I’ve listed markets and restaurants to visit, food to try, cultural places of interest like Hindu, Sikh and Muslim temples, forts, palaces and gardens. I label these with two, three or four stars, identifying for myself what I cannot miss. I’ve noted souvenirs to look out for, and suitable clothing types to purchase. I’ve noted bars and hookah cafes to visit in Delhi. Additionally, I’ve jotted down hotel bookings, dates, and location/ contact information in case of a technical failure with my tablet.
Notes on useful apps like Cleartrip for booking trains, pre-paid taxi services available at airports and train stations (to avoid haggling), and the Delhi Airport Metro Express from Pahargani to Delhi Airport, have all made it into my diary. Finally, I’ve added a quick currency conversion chart, anticipated expenses, and passwords for internet banking.
LEARN BASIC HINDI PHRASES
Although I’m lucky enough to have been born speaking the current Lingua Franca as my native tongue, as an international traveller, I don’t take for granted that everyone speaks my language. For me, learning a few phrases in the local language is not only useful for getting around, particularly if locals don’t speak English, but also shows respect for the culture that I am visiting. Learning some Hindi will remind me that I’m a guest in India, and that to some degree, I’m representing the culture I originate from. Additionally, learning a little of a new language is fun. I did the same thing when I visited Japan recently, and try to do this whenever I have the time and drive before travelling to a new country.
Every morning, I listen to a short Hindi lesson to learn some basic, useful phrases that I’ll actually use. I like the Learn Hindi (Hindi Pod101) series because the lessons are short (three minutes), I can replay them easily, and I can learn one or two phrases within each lesson. Presenter Prerana speaks slowly and clearly, and her classes are accompanied by text. The visual and audio combination suits my language learning style well, so for my purposes, these sessions are fun, simple and useful.
I have been so consumed learning about all the different places to visit that booking accommodation got left to the last week or two. It worked out well because when I travel, I prioritize easy accessibility to sites of interest, and thus I often prefer central locations. I can only do this once I have an idea of the city layout.
Now, knowing which locations I intend to visit, I began booking-marking the locations on Google maps, and from there, I could get a good idea of what neighbourhood might be a most suitable base from which to visit the majority of the sites of interest.
I reserved all my accommodation using Booking.com. This site allows clients to narrow searches using star ratings, particular neighborhoods, budgets and so on. I really like the feature which allows clients to view available hotels for their travel dates directly on a map. These include location and price. I used this feature to book all my accommodations, and it proved very useful for finding a hotel two minutes walking distance to the Taj Mahal in Agra.
Overall, I’ve never spent so much time preparing for a trip as I have with this one. There are so many things I want to experience and avoid missing out on. I want to approach this unique culture with an open mind, and be ready to embrace differences from norms that I’m accustomed to. I’m aware that I will encounter numerous challenges, but I also know that my attitude, and my ability to be flexible will enable an experience that I will never forget.
Have you traveled to India and have some travel tips you’d like to share? Please post your comments below!