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10 Things You Need to Travel in India

25 April 2014

I was scrolling through a bunch of articles related to work, mostly on the topic “10 best travel accessories”. Most of them were talking about traveling abroad. You know, those developed countries with nice restrooms and wi-fi and all of that.

Now, I’m not saying that India is underdeveloped. We’ve got the metro. We have KFC, McDonalds and one of the best beers in the world, among other things. But if you are traveling in India (not even backpacking), the list varies slightly. How? Here’s my list of top accessories:

1. Slippers:

Yep. That’s the first thing that I pack. I love my boots and sneakers and heels. I am a girl after all. But once you hit the road, you really, really start hating lacing up your shoes for every little thing. Especially if you are traveling in the back of beyond and it is super hot. Comfortable slippers or crocs gets my vote!

2. A little notepad with all your numbers written down:

Well, this one isn’t India-specific. It is more global. It is quite astounding how many people do not bother to do this anymore given they all have smartphones. Smartphones, no matter how smart they are, run on battery. And when you are traveling, those travel points are few and far in between. All your important details, including your hotel, flight numbers etc best be written down on a notepad. My pick for this has been Moleskine and has been for years. Those things are strangely resilient and there is a little compartment on the back flap to put in all the tickets and receipts. 

3. A multipurpose charger AND a portable charger

This one is tricky for iPhone users. The rest of the world has moved to a simple USB charger. So you can manage to charge your phone in most places if you have a Samsung, a Micromax, a Xolo, HTC or whatever else. Indians are surprisingly tech savvy and have adapted to smartphones like a fish to water. There were days of Nokia when you didn’t have to worry about a charger because the battery lasted you for days and when it was about to run out, there was always someone who had the famous chargers. But now, well, an iPhone is a little to pricey for everyone else to use. So carry a multipurpose charger and one of those little portable charger things. Saves your life quite often.

4. A Torch:

We have gotten so used to the Flashlight app on our phones. But remember, you are in a land with minimal electricity in certain places. 

5. A Swiss Knife:

Put two in your bag if you can. These little things are lifesavers… to chop pesky little threads or to fix the loose bolt in your hotel / bathroom door. 

6. A digicam camera with a 32 GB memory card (at least)

Unless you are carrying your laptop (and that definitely isn’t advisable on a holiday), you are not going to be able to transfer your photographs. So unless you are a professional photographer, invest in a small digicam and a big memory card. Small Digicam – because you are going to start hating that DSLR in two days, I guarantee it! And because it is inconspicious, easy to stuff into your pocket or your bag. I personally prefer Panasonic. It does a great job for a decent price. 

7. Sunscreen and a scarf

Loads of it, especially if you are traveling in summer. And a nice, dark-coloured scarf, which will double up as your windcheater, shade from the sun, a little towel to wipe the sweat off, a makeshift pillow and whatever else.

8. Medicenes:

Well, again a global requirement. But make sure you have some Norflux and something for allergy. We cannot always list the ingredients in our foods in extreme detail and if are you might be allergic to peanuts or milk….

9. A book

Yep. It serves as a deterrent to pesky conversationalists, something to kill time and a moth-killer.

10. A scan of all your important documents:

Again, not India-specific. More like common sense. So you are in this strange land and you are out drinking and you do not have a clue where your passport got to. Or perhaps your plane tickets. A copy of it in your email is the best alternative to that.

I also pack an extension cord or one of those multi-plug point things because most hotel rooms just do not have enough plugpoints for my phone, my big-ass cameras battery, rechargable batteries and whatever else. 

And my own towels. No matter how fancy the hotel is, I always get a little creeped out by using the towels that someone else obviously has!

Trav(ai)ls in Chennai

21 June 2012

This is my next door neighbour… the one that is more popular than me. The neighbor has got more mentions in movies, has more jokes and stereotypes about them than we have. Of course, we are regarded as ‘cool’ and ‘urbane’ while they are known for their traditionalism and vegetarianism.

The first time I visited this neighbor – Chennai – I was 12. It was a whirlwind visit where all I saw was the view from my hotel room, metal grilles at the embassy and well, a fleeting and traumatic visit to the Marina Beach. It was holi and the beaches were littered with every possible color and a bunch of rowdy boys.

And here I am, alone in the city after more than a decade. I cannot talk about the changes (and I’m sure there are plenty of those) but what struck me were the tree-lined, vast roads. Sure, the main roads have fewer trees… but coming from Bangalore, which was formerly known as the Garden City and has a depleting tree cover, Chennai seemed greener.

The facades are beautiful, with a tinge of sepia and an slightly aged look, but managing to stay away from the dilapidated look. And of course, interspersed with flashy glass buildings or bright boards that spell the familiar McDonalds, KFC, Joyalukkas, Tanishq, Croma etc.

I would’ve liked to spend a few more hours wandering around the streets, absorbing the city. Marina Beach and its beautiful landscape, the Gandhi Statue and its contradictions with the smelly, frantic fish market; the fishermen mending their nets and boys playing football right beside it.

Santhome Road with its old churches and cemeteries (one of which I was shooed away from… and perhaps I’m glad I do not understand Tamil because it didn’t sound like the guard was blessing me).

Language… language… I know one line in Tamil and I speak that like a native.

“Tamil teriyad”

‘course you can never write it right in english… but that sentence translates to “I do not know Tamil.” And then I can throw in a few other words like anj, tanni, venda. Makes for interesting conversations with auto drivers… most of whom rattle away in Tamil like they are on rapid fire round on a quiz show.

Negotiating is an art that I cannot master… distances, auto fare, routes… I’m yet to find a single auto who would probably use meter. I had a feeling every single one of them would laugh at me and call their friends to laugh at me as well if I suggested using the meter.

I shudder to think of the same state in Bangalore, where we still curse, gnash our teeth and move onto the next auto till we find someone who will charge you according to the meter.

In Chennai, he names the price according to how big a fool he thinks you are. I was generally charged about 30-40 percent higher than the meter, which I guess is fair enough considering I don’t know any other number other than anj, which is 5, to negotiate further.

Why the reluctance to speak other languages? Or have boards in other languages? While I do agree that Tamil has a beautiful history and literature, putting up a signboard in English or even Hindi will not destroy that. It makes us feel a little kinder towards you. How am I supposed to ask directions to a place if I don’t know where I am?

And yes, giving directions follows the exclusive tradition of minimalism.

People in Chennai are not given to excesses. They are not overly materialistic, they do not show off gaudy wealth (the traditionalists) and are simple people. The CEO of a big company would still be dressed in a dhoti and cotton shirt if given a choice.

Unfortunately, this minimalistic attitude carries over when giving directions.

“Go Straight and take left/right”

And then, Sir? Do I arrive at my destination? How about landmarks? A little further conversation?

But all this considered, I have a strong sense of accomplishment when I manage to find my way from one end to the other without really having to ask for directions (and a little bit nudging from my faulty GPS).

Vanakkam Chennai.

Tourist Robbers

22 June 2011

I’m still at my desk… merely a week or so after a couple of awesome trips with the best company possible… and I’m back to feeling restless.

Perhaps it was all that research about Leh and Ladakh and biking…

Ladakh has long been on my list… though in recent times, I feel less inclined to go there. Ladakh has become India’s Thailand, once extremely exotic and the thing to do but now everyone heads there.

“There was black tarmac roads built, new passes were opened, signboards, guesthouses; home stays along the road, made this a very doable ride.” reads one post by a biker who headed there a few years ago. Perhaps that defines the essence of the things.

We want to be the explorers, step into those uncivilized lands and rough it out and discover raw nature. Having done it once, I know that there are absolutely no words to describe that feeling or the nature. No picture does it justice. No words capture the essence. And that is the way it should be… sometimes being able to capture it in a photo or words undermines it.

But when a place becomes so much dependent on the tourist trade, it loses something of itself. The things that once drew people there become plastic. Orchestrated.

I know I really cannot comment about how Ladakh is yet.

But consider wildlife tourism. A few elephants, a few deer and maybe, if you are lucky, even a few monkeys and a mongoose. And rarely a tiger. But when I see those animals, so carelessly standing by the riverside, not frightened by the sight of this mammoth, noisy bus filled with noisier people, i feel really sad.

It moves on to resorts in the area, softer hunting trips and such. And thereby the ‘wild’ experience you are supposed to have is completely tamed. And the cost of the forests and animals around you.

While it is inevitable that tourism will spread to all the unexplored areas, how much of the genuine culture can be retained under attack. Because tourism will bring a new culture into the place. People who were happy dancing around a campfire now want to wear Levis and dance around the campfire. Soon they think that dancing is lame and they’d rather do it in a Bollywood movie.

The loss of culture is inevitable. Right now, it just makes me a little sad too.

Windy Slopes

16 June 2011

The road was dark, shrouded in a thick mist. There was the faint sound of wind if one rolled down the window and the air was steeped with moisture. I was pretty sure that each tree was wetter than a river, but I did not dare to get out of the car and check that theory out.

We were on the way to an estate that was promised to be ‘in between the clouds’. I was not particularly thinking about that promise, more intent on following the tail lights of the car ahead.

It was close to midnight perhaps, though it had seemed that way for a while. Being on a vacation, I was not wearing a watch and my cellphone was safely tucked away somewhere after ensuring that there was no network.

We had made it to the little town of Chikmagalur in a little over 5 hours. The last leg of the journey saw some mild rain but that was to be expected, as I learnt over the next few days.

What I did not know at that point was how cold it could get.

The little estate is almost above the clouds. When we reached, there was a thick mist surrounding everything. I really mean thick. Thick enough to cut through with a knife. I could see multiple shadows of me and everyone else in the mist.

We were in the clouds, at the edge… right before the rocks fell away to form a gorgeous valley underneath. Of course, I wouldn’t see that till hours later. At that moment, I was cold, bone cold. I wished I had a little thicker skin so I could stand out and enjoy that chilling breeze like the others but after my teeth started chattering, the car was the only place I could be.

***

Chikmagalur is a place where you do not realise how quickly the time passes. You cannot even figure out what time it is by the sun.

Mornings looked beautiful… the gardens still had dew on them and a faint mist still hovered around tree tops. Lazy treks, wanderings through coffee plants and pepper creepers… and the morning vanished.

Mountain air makes you hungrier. And lazier. Where does all that food go?

For a Bangalorean used to the smoke-filled air, Chikmagalur was a sheer delight of pure oxygen.

The sun peeks out now and then, delighting you with the heat but never staying long enough that you get bored of it.

When you do seek heat, there are always campfires. And a bottle of whisky or rum, depending on your choice.

***
Creative juices simply flow here. It is easiest to imagine a horror movie in the nights and a beautiful romance in daylight. Or a naturist’s heaven. A photographer’s paradise. A lazy bum’s piece of heaven.

Am I going overboard describing the place? I cannot seem to be able to put into words how beautiful and peaceful the place was. I had forgotten the joy of just being… without running your life to a clock… lunches, dinner, waking up, appointments and all that. And yes, a day when your cellphone does not beep.

Life is simpler there. The biggest decisions being what time you want to wake up and what to have for lunch.

But once you leave, there are some really massive questions facing you. Like – how quickly can you get back there.

Traveling Alone

16 June 2011

(This appeared in the May edition of the Indiaah! magazine)

Traveling alone in India requires patience, a particular type of street smarts and most of all – tolerance. India, an incredibly social country, is yet to completely adapt to the idea of solo travelers.

In fact, India is surprised that people would choose to travel alone and spend all that money on themselves. It goes against two basic concepts in the country – frugality and family bonding.

When women are thrown into this concept, it becomes all the more complicated for people to comprehend and accept the fact that a women not only likes to travel alone but is allowed to do so.

My first brush with such an experience was in Pondicherry. I picked the town for a solo foray because I figured there would be some liberated people due to its French ancestry and would be more accepting of solo travelers. What I forgot was that the French left the state quite a few decades ago and the place is very much Indian, even if it has French-style architecture.

Pondicherry is also a ‘tourist’ city, as opposed to a place like Mumbai that has people visiting from all corners of the world for business or pleasure. Mumbai is open 24 hours and women traveling alone do not cause much consternation, even if it is not completely accepted.

There are pockets in Pondicherry where one can travel alone. Auroville, for instance, is a place meant for people seeking peace or just some alone time on a beach. It is frequented by Indians and foreigners alike. But Auroville, as beautiful as it is, does not particularly fall under mainstream tourism, where ‘solo travelers’ are a rarity. Or an oddity, depending on your point of view.

“Where are you from?” was the first question in encountered in Pondicherry. They wanted to know which country I was from, because despite my very-obvious Indian looks, they thought I was only ethnically Indian.

“No Indian girl goes backpacking alone in India” was the verdict.

Indian backpackers, particularly of the female variety, are rather rare.

There are more groups of women headed out by themselves, aided by organizations such as Women on Wanderlust (WoW) or Girls on the Go (GoG).

These organizations aren’t travel agencies but just help put together a trip for only women. The group is made up of only women, single or with friends. It is believed it would be easier to bond with other women, and also be easier for women from traditional households to actually go on a trip.

The organization takes care of everything from travel bookings to accommodations, and you have company to wander around, shop and eat.

The plan did sound great, except most of these organizations are fledglings and offer trips only to limited places. For an impromptu trip like mine, there was no choice but to fly single.

Additionally, I was not completely taken by the trips through organizations like WoW. I liked the comfort of an organized trip and traveling with women without worrying about safety, but I wondered if I would miss out on the chance of meeting other backpackers.

The journey was not a problem. Generally, a flight is the easiest option for a solo traveler. Trains are generally the second option as you can book an entire berth to yourself and sleep peacefully. Buses are at the bottom of my list. One never knows who you will be sharing a seat with, or the people who like to strike up conversations in spaces where there is no escape from.

Most buses in Karnataka, however, give you the option of choosing a seat beside another woman.

The first hurdle came when booking a hotel room.

In a city like Mumbai, nobody cares if you are traveling alone or not. The prices pretty much remain the same and there are also options for ‘single’ rooms. However, in a tourist town like Pondicherry, the concept of ‘solo travelers’ is just beginning to catch on and the options are limited.

Single rooms are few and tend to be claustrophobic, unless it is situated in Auroville. The room I was shown was tiny and consisted of a bed, wedged beside a table and underneath a television set that was poised to fall any minute.

But the good part about traveling alone is you are responsible only for yourself and can change rooms, hotels and more without any fuss.

The hotel manager was quite helpful in helping me find another place. He gave me a list of other options and even offered to store my luggage till I found suitable accommodations. So now all I needed was a strong dose of patience and shrewdness to find a good place and not be ripped off by the auto driver who was seeing a single woman = easily fleeced.

There are not enough single travelers in India for the hospitality industry to welcome them with open arms. Many are still adventurers, a niche crowd mostly streaming in from other countries. The costs remain high for the travelers, forcing them to choose packages and streamlined operations for their trips.

There is a lack of hostels and backpacker motels where people can hook up with other similar-minded people in a secure location. Sometimes, tours or packages for water sports and such refuse to accept single travelers.

But for those who do choose to step out there alone, with a little bit of patience, they can discover a world that often gets hidden when traveling with a group.

Remember Those Roads?

31 May 2011
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Remember when road trips were an ‘event’?

Even that short distance of 140 kms was such a big deal. Cars had to be checked by the mechanic. Food had to be packed for ‘something to munch on’ and water bottles filled. Extra clothes were packed for the kids and towels for the adults. Adults also secreted extra packs of smokes… just in case.

We would start early to beat the traffic and I would always wonder how there would be less traffic on the roads if everyone had the same idea. But apparently everyone did not have the same idea and roads were empty. Speeding was still not possible… cars were slightly slower and the roads were rougher.

We cruised peacefully to songs on the stereo… FM was still a myth and nobody in their right mind in a carful of people listened to the other radio anyway.

There were certain stops on the road that always created some excitement… the huge pepsi bottle that was perhaps a chimney, the water tank that was shaped like a car on top of a house, a lake full of lotuses, an oddly shaped hill… a car abandoned on the highway… they were pointed out with more glee by the adults than the kids…

The trip also came with ONE break. The restaurant on the highway was always full, being the only one. Bus loads of travelers, cars and a few random bikes were all parked haphazardly. The restaurant was always crowded. Waiters were dressed in shirts that were white about 10 years old and had an old towel over their shoulder to compliment it. They were always impatient and rude… customer service wasn’t a term that existed then.

But food was ordered and kids were made to go to the loo, whether they wanted to or not. “We won’t stop again till we reach there,” was the refrain.

Remember that?

It takes two hours to get to wherever now. Highways have CCD (Cafe Coffee Day) for stale coffee and McD (McDonalds) for greasy burgers. And another handful of options. They are open 24 hours and have more loos… though not any cleaner. Snazzy boards light up the highway… all in red and funky lettering. Cars glide by smoother and quieter.

The lakes are emptier and have no lotuses. I rarely see old men in white dhotis crossing the road and cows scared at the noise of a car.

I’m not quite sure if I miss those. They had a charm of their own… and we’ve grown accustomed to speed.

But I do wonder… why on earth isn’t there a 24-hour puncture shop anywhere on the entire highway yet?!

Raipur… the non-tourist trip

13 April 2011

My first sight of Raipur was huge blocks of brown with no mountains to break the view. I woke up from deep slumber and was glad that this was not a train so I would have to scramble to collect all my stuff before the train took off again. Even as I struggled to coherency, I was told that this was not Raipur but Bhubhaneshwar.

I shook my head, freeing space for other images.  I always like that moment when I can pick something out from the sky of the city and in this case it had been this one orange house.

Raipur, however, was a bit of a disappointment. Banal planes of brown… acres and acres of it without any green for diversity or mountains to break the view. I tried to remember where exactly on the map I was…

I did not know what exactly to expect from Raipur. This is a city that is growing in leaps and bounds. I do not know where the place was a decade ago (and to be honest, I did not know till recently either). But there is the smell of development in the city.

When a friend called me recently asking if I would be interested in doing a project in Raipur, I agreed. Then I immediately googled the city. Wikipedia told me that the city was in Chattisgarh, which is one of the newly formed states in the country. The state is a decade old and despite problems with the Naxalites and things like that, it has grown considerably.

The roads were wide and surprisingly clean, even if they were a little dusty. There were barren forests by the roadside and new, big houses enclosed in tall walls, indicating new money.

I was surprised by the extent of development, though I was not really sure what I had to expect from the city. These new developments in India is where the real progress is happening, the real development. It is not cities like Bangalore that are an accurate measure of development.

I’m not really sure how much of infrastructure Raipur has in terms of international development. But these are the cities that form the base for the development of other cities. Coal mines, sugar factories and other commodities provide quick money for development.

The city retained some of its rural attributes. The buildings were not completely sparkling new but still were cleanly maintained. They lacked the weariness of a city but did not have the freshness of a new development as well.

My opinion that the roads were wide and well developed was soon shattered. The main road was… but the rest still speaks of a little settlement converted into a city. Huge houses with multiple cars were housed in roads that were barely wide enough to fit those cars.

There were boards of hotels that wouldn’t be flashy in a city but against the sobriety of Raipur, stood out quite a bit. Stereotypes were shattered and errors were comic.

There was a ‘Veg Empire’ that made me laugh considering the ‘Empire’ hotel in Bangalore is famous for its grilled chicken.

I also saw a board stating ‘Madarasi’s Grill’ that struck me as hilarious. The Madarasi or the Tamilian has been the poster boy for South India for decades. And they are as vegetarian as you can get. And a Grill being associated with them… I was quite tempted to check that place out.

Here is a question that I should have asked – is Raipur vegetarian? It seemed so with the number of places advertising ‘pure veg food’. Of course, there was also an Oasis, Tequila and Lime something.

The people, however, remain the epitome of Indian hospitality. As much as I resent the intrusive questions, I always love how welcoming they are and make sure that you are comfortable.

A girl travelling alone is still a bit of an oddity. But they welcomed me and the questions were held off till they had fed me. And then the questions were quite normal… business dealings in India, particularly the family-run, place importance on your family background as well. Who are you, what your parents do, your religion, your caste and your marital status among other things.

There are stereotypes, of course, of south Indians. But maybe because it was a work thing, I did not particularly resent any of it.

It is a different trip, this one. Work-related and in a small town. I realised that I have rarely travelled to small towns. Small airports, yes. But rarely a small town. And a booming one at that. Makes me wonder what else is happening in the rest of India.

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