India advice, please!
January 13, 2010 9:47 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to go to India in February and March. I have no plans, and would like advice. Sub-question: if I were to buy a teeny, very light laptop to use while there for email and writing, what kind would be best?

I am meeting my (American male) friend in Delhi, and we'll hang out together for a week. Then he leaves and I stay another 2 weeks or so. I have no plans (like really, NONE, it's ridiculous) and lots of questions.

Things I enjoy include:
Wandering around in big cities, eating, meeting locals, seeing animals. I'm great with kids and would be up for volunteering, too.
I don't care about indoor tourist attractions like art galleries, nor monument tourism (Eiffel Tower would bore me) but I do like wonders of nature (Grand Canyon would be great), and experiential/immersive stuff (enjoyed NYC's Tenement Museum). I don't really want to hang out with other tourists all day, either, if possible. I am very willing to move around a lot between cities.

1. Where should I go? What should I do?

2. Any advice about which city would be best for departure?

3. I was vaguely considering going to another country during the last 2 weeks. Any suggestions or advice?

4. Advice about accommodations, luggage, stuff to bring?

5. I like the internet a lot but have resolved not to bring my laptop. Is there a gadget- like a small, light laptop- that would let me email and maybe write a little, but not surf too much? I would spend up to $400 on such a gadget. I currently use a MacBook.

6. Any other advice or recommendations would be great.
(Oh, if relevant, I am a brown Canadian female in my late 20s.)

posted by pseudostrabismus to Travel & Transportation around India (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
2. I believe Delta ended their flights, so on North American-based airlines, you'll have American Airlines coming out of Chicago and Continental Airlines coming out of Newark, both into Delhi. Jet Airways and Air India both offer flights to a number of U.S. and Canadian destinations. You can always connect with the various European airlines. However, Emirates often offers a great deal, if you're willing to connect through Dubai; lots of NRIs and PIOs I know use them. Generally low prices, excellent service, and nice planes. They serve many U.S. and Canadian cities, including the east and west coast, as well as Houston, and some others. Once you're there, Indian Airlines, JetLite, SpiceJet, Kingfisher, and the rest make crossing the country a relative bargain.

*Unless you're talking about which city in India you want to leave out of. A normal round-trip ticket is often, but not always, cheaper than an open-jaw (e.g., coming in through Delhi, leaving through Chennai). Consider just flying back to Delhi at the end of your trip, if that extra domestic flight is cheap enough.

3. Nepal is an easy choice; there are plenty of direct flights, and a train heads far enough north where you can find a ride to get further into the Nepal. Alternatively, you could fly to Southeast Asia. I found flights from India into Bangkok on Jet Airways for a bit over $200 this past summer, and your expenses there will be low, too. However, watch out for the new visa restriction if you're headed there as a Canadian with a normal tourist visa. Due to terrorism, Indian authorities are restricting reentry, even on multiple-entry visas, for two months after your departure from the country, with certain exceptions. I believe there are also some exceptions for people using India as a base for travel in the region, but you might want to check up on that.

But you're not going to have time to see all of India, anyway. Delhi is quite different from Mumbai, which is quite different from Srinagar, which is quite different from the Andaman Islands; it might be worth your time just to explore the diversity of the country you're already in.

4. Try to fit it all in a backpack. I try to just bring a school-sized backpack, but some larger ones (but not too large!) at various outdoor stores can be convenient. You don't exactly have nice sidewalks to drag roller suitcases around with. And it's easier to keep track of your stuff in a rickshaw, on a bus, on a train, and so on. Don't overpack; you can find most of your necessities over there, especially if you're in a big city, though you might pay a bit of a premium for Western brands.

5. Get an iPod touch, perhaps. It has wireless capability, it uses the Safari web browser, and you can run many of the usual mobile apps on it. If you need more, there's always a netbook.
posted by SpringAquifer at 10:17 PM on January 13, 2010

Oh, right, sorry, I forgot to go back and answer your first question. As far as finding stuff to do goes:

Wandering around in big cities: A lot of Indian cities aren't particularly great for wandering around in, as a whole. Mumbai and Kolkata might be interesting enough for an hours-long ramble. As far as other cities go, you'll want to take rickshaws or taxis to, say, the touristy Old Delhi bazaars or even more touristy Connaught Place; the city as a whole is just too spread out to cover on foot.

Eating: It's INDIA! Great food abounds. Just keep some Pepto Bismol and some ciprofloxacin on you. (The latter is a pretty harsh antibiotic if you really get hit bad.) Touristy restaurants are rarely that great.

Meeting locals: Again, it's INDIA! Interesting people abound. There are always plenty of young locals around; they're friendly enough.

Seeing animals: What kind are you looking for? There are monkeys and cows just about everywhere, blocking local traffic. Lots of captive animals in Rajasthan, such as painted elephants, which is to me a little distasteful. Fortunately, the captive bears, even more distasteful, are gone now. Watch for a tiger in one of the nature reserves; it's not too hot yet in March. Head up to Kashmir and watch the mountain gypsies, crossing mountains on foot with their flocks of goats and sheep.

I'm great with kids and would be up for volunteering, too: I don't know much about this. You're not going to be there that long, so I'm not sure how much of a help you'll really be.

Wonders of nature: The Himalayas! Fly into Kashmir or, even better, Leh and Ladakh. Visit the hill stations of Shimla and Darjeeling and their mountain railways; you might be able to grab a glimpse of Mt. Everest from the latter. Watch the (admittedly septic) Ganges, with locals performing puja on the banks at sunrise. National parks.

Immersive stuff: Are you going to be there during the Kumbh Mela? Head to Haridwar!
posted by SpringAquifer at 10:35 PM on January 13, 2010

For $400 you could get any of a large number of netbooks. I've got an eee900ha with xp and a 160gB hard drive. It has a card slot for your camera card and easy wifi. It travels well. If you don't like the eee check out the 9" Dell mini note. You might just save your money and buy one when you get there. Then you'll be avoiding charger problems.
posted by irisclara at 10:38 PM on January 13, 2010

I'm white and Canadian and lived in India for a year (1999-2000) and have been back since on a two-month research trip (2006), just so you know where I'm coming from . . .

Not long after my arrival in India, I made the acquaintance of an older gentleman who'd studied in England, and he gave me the best piece of sort of contextualizing advice I got my whole time in India. I'll share it with you: Think of India not as a country but as a continent. If you landed in Rome, you would not expect the people there to act and speak like Norwegians or eat the same food as Spaniards or share the same values as Greeks. The same is true for Tamil Nadu vs. Punjab vs. Ladakh. Dude was almost understating things - India's feels almost like its own parallel universe, especially to a first-time visitor on a brief visit. (And anything less than a month is a brief visit - it will take you a week just to fully acclimate to the sheer density and scale of life in India.)

Upshot of this is that I would strongly advise you to do a bit of reading and streamline your priorities. The range of what India can offer you is truly staggering. Want to see wild tigers? Temples to gods thousands of years older than the Christian one? Thriving industrial boomtowns? The most ornate of palaces and the most destitute of slums, sometimes all but next door to each other? Want to meditate in the place where they pretty much invented the practice? Want to lose yourself in a crowd of people who've lived their whole lives just to be in that crowd at that temple on that day? Want to laze away a day or two on a rice barge in the prettiest lagoons on the planet for less than the cost of a night at your average off-ramp Best Western? Or on a beach so pretty and empty it's almost stage-set surreal? Want to eat the tandoori chicken the Mughal emperors ate? I could truly go on and on like this.

My advice, then, is to figure out the two or three things you absolutely want to do - either specific places or even just "sit on a beach somewhere" or something - and build from there. Feb/March, for the record, is the absolute best time of year to visit the Ganges plain - places like Delhi and Agra and Jaisalmer are warm but not mercilessly hot, and no rain. Also a very, very good time to visit the beaches of Goa and Kerala or the culturally rich Hindu heartland of Tamil Nadu. It's also about the worst time of year to visit the Himalayas - in fact Ladakh, which someone mentioned above, is pretty much unreachable this time of year, and even Nepal (the parts most tourists go to, anyway) would be cold and quiet this time of year.

Where you go may be partially determined by where you're meeting your friend. That said, even if all you do is thumb through a Lonely Planet, it'll give you enough of a taste of what India has to offer so that you can make the most of your time there. I'm obviously biased, but I really believe India's one of the most rewarding places in the world to travel in - but it can also be a bewildering, frustrating mess if you haven't done at least a bit of prep.

Oh and re the netbook, internet cafes are much, much more abundant, cheap and easy to use than public-access places for your own machine (or such was the case back in '06, though the ground's shifting quickly). Unless you need more than an hour or so here or there, you might find it more trouble than it's worth to bring your own machine.
posted by gompa at 11:20 PM on January 13, 2010 [6 favorites]

Ladakh, which someone mentioned above, is pretty much unreachable this time of year, and even Nepal (the parts most tourists go to, anyway) would be cold and quiet this time of year.

Sure, trekking in Zanskar in December is only for the hardcore, and the road to Manali will be closed. But the OP will be around into March, so nights there are not necessarily bitterly cold. A short flight in and a reservation at an open hotel with heating will allow her to explore Leh without the heavy tourist crowds. (The number of tourists in Leh during the summer borders on the absurd.) The roads around Leh are open most, if not all, of the year; you're only going to have problems if you want to leave the valley for Srinagar or Manali on land, or try to cross some other high passes. It's definitely not the same as Ladakh in the summer, but she might enjoy snow and quiet.

Shimla is not particularly chilly right now, either -- parts of the U.S. and Canada have been far worse over the last week. On the other side of the country, Darjeeling doesn't really get that cold in the first place. By March, Sikkim might even see some slightly cool spring rains.
posted by SpringAquifer at 12:11 AM on January 14, 2010

Most people have covered everything I would suggest.

Don't eat from the food stalls, okay? My American friends are always getting very ill from it.
posted by anniecat at 6:50 AM on January 14, 2010

Meeting locals: Again, it's INDIA! Interesting people abound. There are always plenty of young locals around; they're friendly enough.

Okay, be careful. Don't go around befriending everybody. Be very careful. There are murderers and thieves in India, just like anywhere else. Don't be overly trusting and don't give beggars (the children especially) money.
posted by anniecat at 6:52 AM on January 14, 2010

Seconding an ipod touch. Takes up very little space, plus doubles as an mp3 player for when you are there, and for when you return home.

This is assuming your not going to be pounding out a novel.

The other limitation on it is I believe there would be no easy way for you to get photos onto it for emailing.
posted by travis08 at 8:05 AM on January 14, 2010

I totally love my Asus Eee PC. You can buy one at Staples or Tiger Direct in budget. What's nice is the 7 hr battery life. It's a really small net book. This is assuming you decide that micro (eg ipod touch) is not suitable. The downside is that it does not have a disk drive, so you can't watch movies or play/burn cd's without an external drive. It may not be right, but it's one option to consider. If you are going to be pounding out a novel, pay attention to the keys around the right shift key if you are a touch typist. On the later model of the Asus eeepc they're good for touch typing, but on the Acer (at least the model I looked at), the key layout made it awkward for touch typing. This may not be relevant to your situation.
posted by kch at 8:39 AM on January 14, 2010

Don't eat from the food stalls, okay? My American friends are always getting very ill from it.

I'll dissent from this one. If a street stall is very busy and the food's being cooked and served on the spot, you'll be fine. Odds are at least even you'll get a bit of mild gastrointestinal unease simply from the shock to the system on all fronts, but studiously avoiding street food won't innoculate you and it'll oblige you to miss out on one of the truly magnificent things about the place that you're in. To not eat street food in India would be like going to Europe and refusing to drink wine or even sit in a cafe.

Maybe skip the uncooked chaat and such, but to not eat a roadside samosa or bhel puri? That would just be such a waste of your time in a country boasting some of the planet's finest street food. In fact, if you're in Delhi, I hereby oblige you to go to the Om Hari Om Chaat Stall on the radial extending off Connaught Place past the British Library and American Center. Best street-stall fried potatoes you'll ever find, swimming in an absolutely intoxicating sea of chutney and spices.

Okay, be careful. Don't go around befriending everybody. Be very careful. There are murderers and thieves in India, just like anywhere else. Don't be overly trusting and don't give beggars (the children especially) money.

I'm going to be mostly dissenting on this one as well. Yes, you stick out as a non-Indian (and even North Americans of Indian heritage - desi, as they're called - are as dead obvious to locals as a white dude like me). And yes, the rickshaw driver may try to overcharge you and someone's always trying to lure you into some back-alley carpet shop to pressure you into buying junk merchandise. And as a woman, you'll get stared at constantly (no real social stigma on staring in India) and odds are reasonably high that you may be groped once or twice in a crowded bazaar or something. And obviously as a western tourist, you will be seen in the more touristy areas as a wallet with legs, and you will be relentlessly harangued with sales pitches and inquiries into what it is you want or need, where you're going, what are you looking for.

(Pro tip: Simply do not engage in even a mild "no thank you"; IT IS NOT RUDE to simply ignore these inquiries entirely, and even a vehement NO THANKS is an overture to continuing the conversation. The most effective Indian hand gesture for "Piss off, tout!" is to extend your hand out to your side at waist height and waggle it back and forth in a sort of mild gesture of disinterested shooing.)

All of this said, I'd strongly advise you NOT to let this convince you that you're in any real danger. The overwhelming majority of India is substantially safer than almost any western city you'd care to name. You would be in far greater danger of accidentally wandering into deep trouble in Los Angeles or London. Beyond petty theft and such, there are no major risks, and Indians will go way out of their way to steer you from the real dangers. The rickshaw wallahs will simply refuse to take you to the part of the city where the unrest is, or some passerby will hear your request and talk you out of going there, or if you make the enormous mistake (as Mrs gompa and I did) of wandering into the young men's fairground instead of the family fairground at the big Diwali festival, a security guy with a flailing lathi will materialize out of the crowd to carve you a passage to a safer spot.

Even the groping - which happened to Mrs gompa with some frequency - we came to understand as implying no further threat. I don't mean to justify it - simply to explain the context enough that you hopefully feel a little less terrified by it if it happens to you. Were someone to steal a quick caress in a similar fashion in a North American crowd, it would be such a massive breach of social norms as to suggest itself as an overture to violent sexual crime; in India, your assailant has just reached the peak of his courage, and if (as Mrs gompa learned to do) you push back or even chase the assailant down with your pack swinging in retaliation, not only will the groper cower in fear but the crowd around you will figure out what's happened and sometimes mete out a little extra punishment of its own.

I'm trying not to overstate things here, but when I lived in India I would frequently run into western tourists who'd been so forewarned ahead of time that they travelled in a constant state of anxiety and distrust and missed out entirely on really wading into one of the most fascinating cultures on the planet.

The thing about giving money to child beggars is good advice, though. Mrs gompa and I would often buy a bag of whatever fruit was in season and hand that out to the kids who came begging for change. You have no way to control where the money goes (and sometimes it does indeed go to some kind of Dickensian begging ring's kingpin), but the kids will usually eat the fruit right there on the spot. Our other rule of thumb was we always gave money to lepers. They truly do need it.

There's an email address in my profile if you'd like to ask me direct questions about anything. I'm sure you've gathered by now I have a pretty passionate interest in India, and I'd hate to see you miss out on it.
posted by gompa at 9:15 AM on January 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm not saying be anxious, but don't be overly trusting. I repeat what I said about the food stalls.
posted by anniecat at 10:27 AM on January 14, 2010

Stay in popular hostels or lodgings with shared breakfasts and you will meet many other travelers who will want to go on side trips. When I was young and traveled, I always found companions for fun trips I might not have arranged on my own.

If you have a hobby, find people in there who do your hobby. I've met nice people and had great experiences that way. Shared interests create common ground, and it gives focus to your travel. I hope you will go to the Taj Mahal, which I would dearly love to do.
posted by theora55 at 4:07 PM on January 14, 2010

Hey, lots of people have already given you really good advice here. Especially the continent versus the country thing. And I would much rather use internet cafes than be worried about toting along my laptop while in India.

You're going to find there's a big difference between the American version of sightseeing and the Indian version. If you go to a temple, you will find tourists, religious zealots, holy men, and neighborhood families going about a traditional daily routine. If you go to a natural monument, you'll find the same thing. It's super super easy to get around on cheap public transportation in India - take advantage of trains as much as possible. I didn't pay for AC on trains, and there were several long train rides where I was packed in real close quarters with lots of other people. Me and my friend would often times get stared at. However, we also had a lot of amazing conversations (so many people there speak excellent English) that we might have missed in more comfortable quarters.

Oh, and once again back to the natural wonders thing. It's so different to go to, say, an amazing waterfall in India than in the states. I think people tend to visit the Grand Canyon, or Yosemite, and they have this idea of a pristine wilderness and awe and the spectacle of nature. But in India those places are also part of a huge pilgrimage circuit there, and people go as much to make the journey as to arrive at the place. And once you get there, there's usually like, fifteen stores ready to sell you a salty mango or a cup of chai. And monkeys trying to steal your food, and tourists wanting to take pictures with you.. It's simultaneously both a lot of fun and a lot of crazy sensory information.

My favorite place was probably Kerala, in southwest India. It was a little less crazy, and just gorgeous. Kerala is still a communist government, and the median income there is a bit higher than the rest of India. It's just a small part of India, but it's got some amazing beet curries, beautiful forests, and lots and lots of canals. We had a lot of fun wandering around the beaches in the Northern part of the state.

The other thing I would say is - I know you said that you don't like indoor stuff, but one thing that's a little bit off the grid in India and totally awesome is checking out the libraries in some of the larger cities. Most of them, of course, were built under British occupation and they're now a strange amalgamation of Indian academia, disorder, and deteriorating first edition. They're really beautiful, actually.

Oh, and definitely see a movie while you're there! So much fun - try some masala popcorn, bring some streamers, and learn how to pronounce a couple of famous stars names right.
Mmm, and eat iddlis with coconut chutney for breakfast.

I used a Lonely Plant / Rough Guide while I was there and that worked out great. In retrospect, I would have brought a more comfortable backpack, my own mosquito netting, photographs of the place that I was from to show curious people. Also, I probably would've stayed with a host family or figured out a way to be of use in some way besides being a tourist. I WWOOFED while I was there, but I don't think I would go back unless I had a better reason, even though I now miss it dearly. But travelling in India is amazing.
posted by ajarbaday at 8:00 PM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing that you should eat from the food stalls.

And adding that you should constantly use hand sanitizer, as you'll be doing lots of eating with your hands, and often without anything close to the washroom facilities that you're used to.
posted by demagogue at 2:44 PM on January 15, 2010

Just finished reading Sam Miller's Delhi - Adventures in a Megacity - he walks the whole of Delhi in a spiral. Plenty of fun stories and inspiration for non-touristy places to go to in Delhi.
posted by meech at 3:36 AM on February 9, 2010

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