Tuesday, March 09, 2010

How to Survive a Trip to India


I'm afraid that I don't have time to put together a full post this week. I was out of town all weekend on a mini-vacation and, aside from catching up on chores since getting back I've also been setting up a new computer. I finally upgraded to Windows 7 with great 16" Asus laptop and I'm loving it! The keyboard is much easier to type on, it has HDMI out, and it can actually handle multi-tasking. You'd think a Core 2 Duo would be enough for that but somehow my HP Pavillion laptop never understood that concept and would only reliably handle one thing at a time. Even though I've used Windows 7 before this I have to admit that this was an even smoother user experience migration than I expected. I don't get the opportunity that often to give props to Microsoft so I have to give it up now: great job on the robustness. I love compatibility mode so that my old applications can run even if they're not quite compatible with Windows 7 by default. I feel like the instability of one application now is not going to crash my system anymore, either. The combination of this new hardware and Windows 7 is really going to make it a lot easier for me to blog without spending long amounts of time waiting or having to restart my computer.

Anyway, to replace my normal post I thought I'd post a speech I prepared last week for Toastmasters regarding my recent trip to India. I'll be back next week with a normal post. Until then, I hope you enjoy my speech!

Surviving a Trip to India

My heritage is Indian, and yet my recent trip to India made it quite clear that I’m culturally very much an American. I’ve been spoiled by Western luxuries like clean, running water and toilet paper that doesn’t feel like sandpaper. I went to India, for the second time of my life, on vacation in January with my brother, his wife, her sister, and a friend of ours. What we discovered that India is an incredible country where a rich culture meets modern society, which means that you’ll look out of one side of your cab to see a guy on his smartphone and out the other side to see a cow stuck in traffic. But I still haven’t said a single word about the abundance of affordable, exquisite food. I stand before you today to encourage all of you to consider making a trip to India yourselves, and there are a number of things I learned during the course of my trip that I wish I had known before I left SeaTac. Since my time with you today is limited, I’m going to cover what I consider to be the big ones to help you survive your trip and understand some of the local customs.

As your high school shop teacher probably once said: safety first. You should check the Center for Disease Control, or the CDC, website for what immunizations they recommend and get them taken care of at least a month before your trip. They actually have a list of travel clinics on their site, and the easiest thing to do is to give your closest one a call and set up an appointment. They’ll usually charge you a nominal fee for the consultation and set you up with everything you need, some of which may be covered by insurance. I actually ended up getting a stomach parasite on my trip and was so glad I had visited a travel clinic and gotten the medication I needed in advance. The pharmacists, or chemists, you find in India often aren’t very well-educated and have no qualms about giving you prescription medication over-the-counter. So if you visit one and come back to America with hair growing on your palms, you’ll know why. In addition to seeing your travel clinic, be sure to stock up on pain relievers, fever reducers, and antacids, at the very least.
One of the other shockers we encountered there is that public bathrooms rarely have soap in them. The pollution can get pretty heavy in the big cities and in your sightseeing and shopping, you’re bound to get your hands dirty, so be sure to bring plenty of hand sanitizer and moist towelettes to use before and after your meals, and, of course, bathroom runs.

Speaking of food, make sure you only eat at clean restaurants. Avoid getting food on the side of the road. When you see a guy wipe his nose with the same hand he uses to make your Bombay Burger, you’ll quickly lose your appetite. There is no Health Department in India, so you’re on your own. No matter where you eat though, definitely don’t drink the tap water. Unlike America where our water is processed assuming that it will be consumed, Indian water isn’t really filtered and only the most iron clad stomachs can handle it. Bottled water isn’t that expensive, so buy and drink plenty of it. Dehydration isn’t uncommon for travelers, especially in the South where it’s hot year-round. Another reason you’ll want bottled water is for brushing your teeth - some travelers get sick from brushing with tap water.

For your day-to-day expenses, you’ll need plenty of cash. In a country with over a billion people and fraught with small towns and villages, it’s not too hard to understand why credit cards are unpopular. I recommend using a money belt so that you don’t risk getting pick-pocketed. Additionally, I discovered why frugality runs in my family. It turns out that Indians are used to bargaining for literally everything - from meals to clothes to hotel rooms. Even being brown I was immediately recognized as an American by everyone and so the prices pitched to me were always ridiculous by Indian standards. You’ll get better and better at reading how low someone is willing to go on a price as you shop, but don’t be afraid to walk away because they’ll often end up ceding to you. If you’re traveling with friends then you can almost always get great bargains by buying multiple things – kind of like shopping at Costco but without the free samples. Unless you see the words “fixed price”, just assume that you can bargain.

Prices aren’t just cheaper there for tourist trinkets and food though, domestic travel is also much cheaper. Trying to drive around there yourself is like trying to drive on I-5 blindfolded – it’s just not a good plan. We were able to get a driver for a van for less than $40 a day. If you take a rickshaw, the vehicle of choice in Mumbai, you can expect to pay about $1 for a 30-minute trip across town. Of course, being in a rickshaw has the added bonus of letting you see your life flash before your eyes numerous times as your driver weaves in between lanes and gets within a couple of inches of huge trucks.

While I recognize that some of my tips may have been a bit intense I hope that I haven’t discouraged you from considering a vacation in India. It’s a great break from the cold in the winter, many people there understand English, you’ll discover the most delicious food you’ve never eaten, like vada pav, and there’s great beauty to be explored all around, such as a marble Bahai temple shaped as a lotus flower. There are some more common sense things you can do to prepare for your trip, like getting a visa, packing sunscreen, and bringing extra toilet paper, but I think I’ve given you the bare minimum in order for you to make it back home in one piece. You can [post a comment] if you’d like to learn even more about traveling to one of the most amazing and unique countries in the world.

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