I like to think I know what to pack when I go on trips. I do hours of research and make hundreds of lists, and travel experience also helps in knowing what to take. I’m proud to say I’ve never once forgotten anything and found myself desperately in need of it when away. (Okay so there was the time when I forgot my bra and had to turn back around when half way to the airport but that was totally Alex’s fault. And yes it was a much needed piece of underwear!)
But India is in a league of its own when it comes to what you need to take with you.
During my 3 weeks travelling through the North and South I visited modern and old cities, ancient forts and holy temples, sandy deserts and beaches, lakes and fishing villages, and peaceful mountains and forests, all varying in weather from foggy Delhi to the cold night desert to the sunny beaches of Kerala. To pack for a trip like this wasn’t the easiest of tasks but, aside from the obvious items such as bags full of Imodium and tissues, I very quickly found out there are a few other essential things you just cannot forget on a trip to Incredible India.
1. Hand sanitizer: This is something I have in my bag every day at home, purely because if I see food I want it, so it’s always handy to have. But in India hand sanitizer is a huge necessity as it’s generally not the cleanest of places. Most locals don’t seem to have any respect for their country as there is an awful lot of litter lying in the streets along with huge cow pats that you have to jump over to avoid standing in. On top of that there’s the dust, as well as the fact that Indians have a tendency to spit. A lot. All of this just made me feel constantly dirty and when you’re trying different foods and drinks, especially the street food, you are going to want your hands to be as clean as possible.
2. Change: This is possibly the most important thing that you should have on you at all times in India. If you don’t have small change you are basically screwed. You’ll end up giving a huge tip to the man who carried your bags up one flight of stairs, or bartering in the markets to then find that you only have large notes and there’s no way you’re going to get that tiny elephant statue for the small price you got the seller down to now. Everyone in India wants money from you – from the people you buy things from to simply asking someone for directions – they all want to be tipped. A maid expected a tip for bringing us towels even though she was the one who forgot to leave them in our room. A homeless woman on the street wanted money even though we’d just given her some food. If you don’t have change on you, lots of small change, you’ll either end up going without or paying a lot more than you should have done.
3. Pashminas: Loads of them. Seriously, take loads. I ended up wearing one every single day. Not only do you have to cover your shoulders and sometimes your head in the thousands of temples, mosques and holy places that are dotted all over India, but if you walk around with spaghetti straps on baring all your arms and shoulders, you will be stared at even more than usual, and that is a lot. They also come in handy during the Indian winter when the day time is sunny and warm but the temperature drops considerably at night. There are no shortage of pashminas, scarves and saris lining every single Indian street and the huge array of colours and patterns will leave you wanting to buy a different one for every day you’re there.
4. Colourful clothes: Okay, this one isn’t a must, but if you don’t wear colourful clothes in India it’s pretty much sacrilege. Everywhere you go you will see bright colours and over the top patterns from the buildings and landscapes to the clothes. Pretty much the only people who wear black are the married Muslim woman and white is generally the colour for mourning. Plus if you’re brave enough to wear white, it really won’t stay that colour for long, as my poor new bright white top soon found out (luckily it was only from Primark!). You’ll see splashes of every colour everywhere so it’s only right to join in.
I’ve even been told that some of my pictures have been edited too much and they’re too bright (yes, mum, I mean you) when in actual fact I didn’t edit them at all, that’s just how bright India is 😛
5. Socks: Even though I wore flip flops most of the time while in India, at a lot of the holy places you’re required to take your shoes off and leave them outside. At most places this was okay and we walked around barefoot. But in other places, like the rat temple just outside of Bikaner, you really don’t want to be touching any part of your body on the floor. So take lots of cheap socks that you won’t mind throwing away after having loads of rats scampering around your feet or after narrowly missing the 10th blob of spit a lovely local has left for you to step in.
6. Patience: Nothing in India is easy. Everything takes 10 times longer than it should and everything costs 10 times more than it should. Every car ride will find you stuck in a traffic jam; every train journey will make you delayed; every person will want to stop you in the street and talk to you. You won’t be told about train and flight delays, this is just something you have to figure out for yourself. When you’re stuck at a train station for hours without any announcements, no idea if you’re on the right platform, no one around you speaks any English, added with the fact that a station full of Indians are staring at you, just go with it because your train will (eventually) arrive.
Your patience will not only be tested with regards to time but also when it comes to money. When you visit a fort, museum or even somewhere as popular as the Taj Mahal, be prepared to be massively ripped off. Yep, you are seeing things correctly, there is in fact a counter for Indians and, next to it, a counter for foreigners. So go queue up in the foreigners’ line and pay the massively higher fee. You can get angry about all of these things but the fact remains that this is just India and it’s how things work here. So if you leave your patience at home you’ll just have to suck it up.
7. A huge appetite: Something I was looking forward to most about India and something that I ended up enjoying the most was, yep, you guessed it…the food. Oh my giddy aunt, the food was good! From the day we arrived to the day we left I stuffed myself silly with local delicacies. Malai kofta, rotis, dosas, dal, pakoras, samosas, paneer, aloo jeera, chicken tikka, thali, king fish, chapatti, all with the obligatory chai or lassi to wash it down with. I could go on and on and on and on but it’s almost time for dinner and this is making me really hungry. So just be prepared to come back very fat after a trip to India.
8. Common sense: India is quite a hard country to deal with. There’s a lot of poverty and corruption and, while a lot of locals will try to scam you and charge you a higher price, not everyone is out to get you. Most of the people we met were incredibly friendly and just wanted to get to know us. We were even invited to join a couple for a picnic outside a mosque! As long as you use your common sense and don’t fall for anything that sounds too dodgy you should be fine. Although when it comes to either driving or crossing the road as a pedestrian, all common sense seems to vanish, as you can read about here.
9. The desire to be a celebrity: I’ve never wanted to be famous and don’t even like being the centre of attention; I’m far too shy for that and will cringe away from any dramatics. But I just couldn’t get away from my celebrity status in India. Clearly everyone thought I was someone important – I have been told I look like Scarlett Johansson before so I’ll go with that one 😉 If you’re fair skinned or blonde everyone wants to know you. Luckily for me, I am fair skinned AND blonde so, woohoo, I got to be famous for 3 weeks! But the woohoo quickly turns into an exasperated sigh when you’re stopped every few steps for photos with strangers and when you realise that everyone, and I mean everyone, is staring at you it becomes slightly uncomfortable. Really, a queue of 15 people waiting in a line to have their photograph taken with you, while slightly flattering, is a little awkward. And having a baby thrown into your arms for a photo is completely insane! While Alex was loving his 15 minutes of fame I had to eventually shout that NO MORE PHOTOS WERE BEING TAKEN!! and quickly pull him out of the crowd so that we could actually see the damn sights we’d gone there for!
You can wear all the long pants and pashminas that you like, even dye your hair dark and get a tan, but I can assure you that there is still no getting away from the fact that you will become India’s biggest star.
10. An open mind: If you’re the sort of person who likes simple, easy holidays, where you can relax on the beach and see the sights in peace, eat the food you eat at home, and have drunken nights out with people from home (I’m largely thinking of the closed-minded English folk here), then India is not for you. If you want to experience a different culture, different traditions, spend your time talking to locals, and trying plates full of food like nothing you have at home, then you will love India. It’s a culture shock, a different way of life, and things that are seen as wrong or even against the law at home (such as cramming 10 people into a tuk tuk that should only fit 3) are the norm here. Don’t turn your nose up at it or take offence. Just go in with an open mind, realise that pretty much anything goes and you’ll have the time of your life.
While India is a diverse and beautiful country that has a lot to offer travellers and tourists, it’s also a huge culture change and a complete assault on your senses. So whether you’re an experienced traveller who’s not had the chance to visit yet, or a newbie who wants to go as part of a first trip, as long as you take most of these things with you, you should get along just fine in this country that is like no other in the world.
Have you found yourself wishing you had something with you when you’re away? Do you have any other must-haves for Incredible India?