everything you need to know about traveling to india: the logistics {monster post}

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Although I had such an incredible experience in India, I couldn’t be more happy to be sitting on my couch, Twilight Zone playing on the background and a cup of coffee brewing. Home feels good, right, and I feel as if I’ve returned from my trip with an arcane sense of understanding and clarity. I’ve got a separate post brewing on all matters Felicia and enlightenment, but for now know that things are good, although I’m a bit disoriented and tired, as in I’m trying to understand that I won’t see a camel on the way to the store — that sort of thing.

Anyway, a great deal of you lovely folks sent emails, tweets and comments inquiring about traveling to India. Everything from safety to hotels and that sort of thing, and although I can only give you my impression, know that India is HUGE. I mean, 1.2B people huge, and I know that saying this is patently obvious, but you don’t really understand how massive India is until you visit. Customs, dialects and logistics vary by region, so I’ll give you my take on having visited the following cities: Delhi, Agra, Ranthambore and Jaipur, as well as asking a ton of questions of our intrepid, and very patient, tour guide.

Itinerary: Through Jetsetter, I discovered Indus Travel’s Treasures of India tour, and I can’t recommend it enough. Only a year in operation, it feels as if they’ve been executing flawless tours for years. From precise and friendly airport pick-up and transfers to excellently-appointed hotels {I stayed at Vivanta by Taj — the most extraordinary hotel, ever, as evidenced by my photos below, Gateway, Vivanta by Taj – Sawai Madhopur Lodge, Trident}, to small group sizes {our tour was of seven} and an amazingly kind, smart and funny guide, Indus really made my experience in India a truly special one.

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Language + Religion: Although English is generally used for official and business purposes, Hindi is the official language and is spoken by about 30 percent of the population. There are in all 22 officially recognized languages. When I asked my tour guide about faith, he relayed that bulk of the population is Hindu, followed by Muslim and Christianity. For the most part, the relationships between the varying faiths are extremely amicable, with the exception of interfaith marriage, which is very much frowned-up culturally, but absolutely legal.

Visas + Travel logistics: Citizens of all countries need to have a valid passport and an entry, transit or tourist visa obtained from the Indian Mission in your country prior to departure. Visas are usually valid for either 3 months or 6 months from the date of issue and are valid for multiple entry regardless of whether you intend staying that long or re-entering the country. Since I’m still traumatized by my Russian consultate experience from a decade past, I opted to use a service to obtain my visa, Travisa. You’ll need to fill out extensive online forms, submit passport-type photographs {these can be uploaded online}, and submit copies of your recent utility bills. The process can take anywhere from 4 days to a month, so be safe — my Visa took three weeks and I spent, in total, $300 for all of the processing.

India Local Time: The standard time for India is calculated from Allahabad and is common to all cities. Indian Standard Time (IST) is 5 hours and 30 minutes ahead of GMT. You won’t believe how many times I checked my watch, confused about the 1/2 hour situation.

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Local Currency: The monetary unit in India is the India Rupee (INR). XE.com is a useful site for currency conversion. For U.S. citizens, for every dollar I received around 58-60 INR, depending on the day. When I travel, I tend to use my AMEX for most purchases instead of cash so I can get an average value of the exchange rate. I do use cash for pocket money. Note that most folks don’t have change for large 1,000 notes, and torn notes, even in the slightest, will be refused. You can find ATMs in most hotels and large cities, however, in smaller provinces they are not as ubiquitous. Try to change a great deal of $ at the airport. I was in India for nine days and $500 American dollars was more than enough since larger purchases were made with my AMEX.

Of note, I do place global travel alerts with all my credit cards to avoid fraud, and to ensure that my credit card providers know I’m using my card (s) in another country.

Health + Medical Requirements: Two weeks before you leave for India, absolutely make an appointment with your doctor. Depending on your vaccine history, you may have anywhere from 2-6 shots. I had four {polio, Hep A, tetanus, and another one of which I can’t recall at the moment} and took a typhoid oral vaccine a week before I left. I also took malaria pills daily, and I was stocked with pills in the event that I got sick from any of the food {I did, twice}. I also brought sunscreen and DEET, although, quite honestly, the DEET didn’t work. Oddly enough, lavender oil, did.

Safety {Misconceptions + The Real Truth}: Okay, I’m going to take this head-on. Unless you don’t read or don’t care about world news, you’ve certainly heard about the very brutal rapes in India over the past year. From gang rapes in buses to captures during the daylight hours, the news has painted a very dark portrait of India, which is disturbing in a multitude of ways, yet shouldn’t be the reason why you don’t travel to one of the most beautiful, intense and spiritually attuned countries in the world. Rape, murder, sexism are prevalent in all countries in the world — some more than most — and if anything in the past year has taught me, it’s this: the U.S. clearly doesn’t view women as equals {rape and victim blame culture, anyone?}, even if we all like to talk a good game. The existence of social media has raised awareness about these atrocities, however, if you think that rape suddenly just started in India, you may want to rethink that. Without getting too deep into a rabbit hole {I’m also jetlagged and not thinking straight}, India is a relatively safe country if you’re smart about how you travel.

Groups of men {or a few in pairs} will approach you in an attempt to sell you things or talk to you — simply and politely ignore them and they’ll go away. Our guide relayed that these folks are looking for easy marks to target and don’t want to deal with complications. Personally, I don’t travel around at night as I tend to do most of my tours during the day and stay home and read, blog, or catch up with my new friends in a GROUP, in the evening.

People will stare at you, it’s a fact. Part of it has to do with the fact that you’re different. In many of the rural areas, many people don’t regularly see people who aren’t Indian, and it’s more out of curiosity than contempt. A few kids took our picture, and asked us whether we liked Obama. The harder part was dealing with men staring. I traveled with a tall blonde, who elicited quite a bit of attention, but it was extremely challenging to not feel eyes roving about your body. Nothing is ever said or insinuated — it’s just a feeling of disquiet. This was most prevalent in the markets and more rural areas {highway stops and that sort of thing} — less so in New Delhi, KOD, business districts, etc. While I didn’t like it, I dealt with it. 80% of the time I was greeted and treated with kindness, and I found folks to be curious, smart, and friendly in my interactions.

For all the people who had a heart attack that I was going to India, breathe it out. I NEVER ONCE FELT UNSAFE.

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Animals: On the regular, you will see cows. LOTS OF THEM, everywhere. They are like the stray dogs of the U.S., but most have owners. You will also see goats, dogs, camels and monkeys, everywhere. For the more exotic animals, you’d locate them at reserves. Of note, I saw several packs of monkeys with tourists trying to feed them and then grew shocked when a monkey bit them. Note, guys: these are WILD ANIMALS. These are not domesticated pets. Treat them as such.

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Getting Around {Transit, Street Navigation, Creative Honking}: This link is a great primer on traveling in India {I was either on a bus or car, so I didn’t experience it first-hand}. In Delhi, there were red public buses {sans air conditioning}, blue public buses {air-conditioned} and an underground subway system {most expensive of the three}. Most folks take buses and tuk-tuks {motorized or bicycle driven}. I did take a tuk tuk in Jaipur, and since the language was a barrier, my friends and I had our hotel cards with us at all times.

One thing you will notice is that EVERYBODY HONKS. ALL THE TIME. THIS IS A THING. There are no traffic lights or signs, so don’t be surprised by the very organized and brilliant chaos. Cars, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cows, people, buses — they’re all weaving in and out of a multi-lane traffic lane or intersection. Since I’m an avid jaywalker, it didn’t bother me all that much, but I had to be aware of where I was looking. This was most prevalent in Jaipur.

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WIFI: Before I left the U.S., I called AT&T and purchased my requisite data plan. Seriously, DO NOT BOTHER. While I can make calls anywhere in India, I wasn’t able to access data services until I was in major cities or at my hotel. High-speed internet isn’t like the U.S., and most folks, I’ve noticed, don’t use smartphones — unless they are in business or have more disposable income.

Shopping + What’s Good + Wear to Buy: As I’ve grown older, I don’t shop for souvenirs like I used to, so I mostly buy pieces that tell a story. India is pretty excellent, IMHO, for the following: textiles {rugs, blankets, shirts, embroidery, cashmere, wool, pashmina}, perfume oils {I purchased fifteen small vials and I’ve no regrets}, spices {do not buy loose spices; there have been rumors of ground-up cow dug as a mixing agent}, marble and jewelry {I purchased a 1 carat sapphire set in .8 carat diamond ring for $175, certified and verified}.

Of note, haggling is expected, especially if you’re buying more than one item. 10-15% discounts are standard, but I’ve managed to get items up to 30% off.

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Food: Crazy that I’m saving the best for last, right? Indian food is extraordinary. I’m pretty much ruined for it. Most of my meals were vegetarian, and the cacophony of spices, textures and flavors transformed simple rice and dishes from the ordinary to the extraordinary. I will pen a separate post on the cuisine, once I adjust to the fact that I’m not going to see a cow on the regular.

As I mentioned earlier, these are my general impressions. If you’ve got info to add, tips, etc, please leave them in the comments field, as I know of a few friends who plan to travel to India within the next year.

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9 thoughts on “everything you need to know about traveling to india: the logistics {monster post}

  1. I loved following your trip! I guess you could say I was kind of living vicariously through your beautiful pictures and writing. Welcome back to NY!

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  2. i enjoyed your photos so much and this seems like an excellent primer on travelling there! Honestly, it’s not somewhere I had thought about, but after seeing all your photos I’m adding it to my bucket list.

    On another note, I’m dying to read about Russia. That is somewhere both my husband and I would like to go. What was that like? Did you write about it? Deets!! :)

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    1. Thanks, Emily! Sadly, I went to Russia {St. Petersburg} over a decade ago. I’ve only memory and print photographs {crazy, right?} to go by. I’m sure much has changed. I went during White Nights, and although it’s a beautiful country, it is a difficult one. The Hermitage is worth the visit, though. It makes the Louvre look like K-Mart.

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  3. Love that you went to India, one of the most enriching experiences ever, India wakes something in us that has been lying dormant most of our lives, it’s like a pulse.

    Can’t wait to read more of your impressions, wow, I’ve never seen a hotel like the one in the first pic, we saved much on hotels by taking overnight cramped buses (3 to a seat that would normally take two), where I learnt that the body can survive on very little sleep, because there is no time to catch up when there’s so much to see during the say. I can’t imagine doing that today, but the memories are priceless. :)

    Liked by 1 person

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