Tuesday, January 10, 2012

BACKPACKING IN INDIA - things to consider

By SUJITH.G.S

    India is a country that often overwhelms you – a place so beautiful and natural, yet growing at a rapid pace, only now coming to grips with globalisation and the facebook age. For most parts, it is still pristine and unspoilt. Yet, it is one of the most diverse country anywhere – people, customs, religions, food, climate...all vary from one place to another, yet, co-exist in the vibrant microcosm that is India.

    One of the most inspiring experiences is to travel throughout the length and the breadth of the country to witness the magic that is India, backpacking across the country to really immerse yourself in its culture. It is a journey that will be personally enriching. I have put down a list of things from my own journeys that may be helpful to other like-minded travellers. So here goes -

1.    First things first. Pack light. This is one of the cardinal rules while backpacking. There is no point burdening yourself with a heavy backpack. Carry only essential items. Plan your travels such that they are resource efficient, even in terms of clothes.

2.    Get a good map of the places you intend to visit. It should be small enough to be folded and carried in your pocket. Get a good Lonely Planet for India as it provides good relevant details.

3.   Always try out the local cuisines and foods. And as far as possible, eat from the local eateries and hotels where the local people throng. Food is one of the best ways to discover a place and you will be able to strike up interesting conversations with the locals and in the process, often learn about interesting places & events to visit, which may not be on the tourist maps. Lonely Planet World Food India is a very useful guide to have with you.

4.    People, especially local people are one of the most interesting aspects of travelling. Learn about them, talk to them to find out their ways of lives, customs, beliefs etc. You might even be lucky enough to be invited into a local home for a meal!!

5.    Before setting out, do a bit of research about your destination. Note down a few interesting places that you need to visit, tentative accomodation places etc. But keep your research basic. You tend to get better deals sniffing around the actual place.

6.    Try not to rigidly plan your itenary beforehand itself. Think and plan on your feet. There will always be certain places where you would want to spend more time and also those places, which might not be worth spending so much time. So its important that you are flexible enough in your plans.

7.    Always remember that it is not the number of places that you’ve been to that is important. Travelling is about the journey and not the destination, about your experiences, about discovery, about learning. It is also about discovering yourself. So travel with an open mind to experience the real India.

8.    Always keep some buffer time in your travel. Do not plan your travels such that the transport connections are too tight. If you miss one of your targeted transports, it may end up spoiling your entire trip. Also try to be early for all your journeys.

9.    Try travelling sleeper class in the trains as much as possible. Not only is it cheap, you get to meet a lot of interesting people and hear interesting stories. Only thing, book your tickets in advance.(train timings usually go haywire in winter in the northern part of the country due to fog. So if you are travelling during that time, be prepared for delays). Book all your tickets through the Indian railway's website http://www.irctc.co.in/. That way you can stay clear of travel agents. Also, always plan your travels during the night, as overnight journeys saves time and also the cost of accomodation!

10. Use public transport. There is nothing as interesting as a crowded vehicle with locals vying for space. Slightly uncomfortable maybe, but worth the experience.

11. For overnight accommodation, various options like youth hostels, dormitories etc are available almost all over the country. Getting a youth hostel membership is always a good idea, as it is valid all over the country.(http://www.yhaindia.org/memberships/). The facilities are usually decent and it is easy on the pocket too. If possible, try to stay with local families. This is a great way to learn of the local customs and people. Make sure though that your place of accommodation is centrally located, to avoid unnecessary hassles in travelling and wastage of time.

12. Always check out the facilities offered before you pay money and accept the accommodation, as often, what is promised may be different from what is offered.

13. If you are planning to travel to the north India during winter, make sure that your place of accommodation offers hot water.

14. Find out about the check in and checkout times beforehand itself and plan accordingly. Also, find out if there is a closing time in the night. You do not want to get caught out in the night (as it once happened to me and my friend  in a freezingly cold Chandigarh night)

15. Try to avoid autorickshaws as far as possible unless you really have to. One of the things that is surprisingly common all over India is the tendency of the rickshaw drivers to cheat and overcharge (all though this is not true always, and in all places. Mumbai is an exception).

16. If you need to get an auto or a cycle rickshaw from the railway station, always step out of the station first and get a vehicle. The rickshaw drivers in the station will certainly overcharge you. Nowadays most of the stations have got a pre-paid facility. Try to get your auto from there only.

17. Check out the weather forecasts in advance. Extreme climate is one of the major deterrents while travelling. There is no point if your plans go for a toss due to heavy rains, unbearable cold etc. That being said, weather in India is one of the most unpredictable entities. So dont be disappointed if you find yourself in the middle of a downpour when the forecast was for a clear day!

18. Choose your clothes according to the weather conditions. Loose ones for hotter climates and ofcourse heavy ones for the cold. A small towel is also a handy item.

19. A good cap is handy especially in warmer places.

20. Wear a comfortable pair of shoes or sandals. They must be hardy enough to put up with some good walking. 

21. Always carry a good amount of water with you and keep yourself hydrated. Distilled water is available everywhere nowadays.

22. Walk as much as possible. It is one of the best ways to discover a place, to really get to discover it at your own pace.

23. Carry a few basic medicines like those for fever, indigestion etc.

24. Stay away from guided tours as far as possible. Your Lonely Planet would be a very trusted companion to carry around.

25. Always try out the local tea. It varies across the country in very interesting ways.

26. Keep good care of your luggage while travelling. Do not discuss your plans in detail with strangers, especially on the train. Carry a metallic chain of around 2 feet length and a small lock. This can be used to secure your lugguage at night in the train. Be bold but try to travel safe. Avoid volatile situations; try not to get into arguments or fights. Always remember that you are the outsider here, but do not be pushed over by others. Be stern when you have to.

27. Always respect local customs and practices. You are the outsider and have to respect things even if it may not make sense to you.

28. Charge your mobiles and cameras as required. It is disappointing to find that your camera charge has died down in the middle of an exciting journey. Always carry your chargers with you and keep your batteries fully charged. Railways coaches do have charging points, but it is best not to totally rely on them alone. It is always a great idea to carry a portable powerbank with you.

29. Also ensure that there is adequate space in your camera for all your clicking. So download and free space inside your camera prior to starting out. Carry a good quality external Hard-disk to back up all your data.

30. Try not to use your camera inside the train, if possible. If it is a day journey only, then you may use your camera. But if it involves night travel also, try to avoid showing your camera outside, as you never know if someone may try to steal it in the night.

31. Carry only the minimum amount of cash as required. ATMs are common all across the country and there is no point losing sleep over the cash in your pocket. But make sure that if you are going to visit places outside the city, you have adequate money to take you through and also something extra for emergencies. In cities, there are money exchange facilities for the foreign travellers.

32. Do not litter, damage or create nuisance in any of the places that you visit. Scribbling on the walls of the monuments is totally uncool.

33. Language might be an issue while you are travelling in India. For the northern part of the country, if you know even rudimentary Hindi, you will do fine. English may not be always understood. For the southern part, if you know English you will be all right. Hindi isn’t understood as much. Yet, the main thing to remember is that language isn’t a barrier if you really want to travel. We Indians are very good at understanding and expressing ourselves in signs and broken words.

34. Always ask and speak to local people for directions and help. You will be amazed to find the hospitality shown to travellers all over the country.

35.Buy only those souvenirs which will not be a hindrance to your travels. Also, always bargain, as we Indians love a good bargain.

36.There are some great out of the way places in India. Sure the common tourist attractions do have their own charm, but there are plenty of quiet, beautiful places away from the maddening crowds which are even more enchanting. So do check out them out for a really satisfying experience.

37. Carry a good travelogue with you. It will be a great companion to have during your journeys. William Dalrymple has written some really amazing books on his travels through India. The 'Age of Kali', 'City of Djinns' and 'Nine Lives' are some of my personal favorites. 'Chasing the Monsoon' is another good book to have.

98.Finally, learn to let go. There will be lot of situations which will be beyond your control. Be prepared to take these in your stride; or else, you'll end up spoiling your time and not enjoying your trip. Travel with an open mind and rest assured; you wont be disappointed!!


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