Traveling Through India: The Basics

For more on my backpacking trip through India, check out Mumbai experience, Kallikadu, Sivananda ashram introduction, Indiathe basics, Sivananda ashram I, Sivananda ashram II, waterfalls and temples, the streets, and varkala posts.

When I booked my trip to India I searched high and low for information on what to expect when traveling to India, what to pack for a trip to India, what the food was like in India, but had a really hard time finding the right details. There was a bit of information here, a bit there… but it was all kinda sketchy.

Not only that, but I had multiple people tell me on just how crazy I was for doing this trip alone. As the days grew closer to my departure, I got more and more nervous about it. I wish I’d been able to find a blogger; or anyone for that matter, who had gone to India and had an amazing time.

I’m hoping that me sharing my stories will show that going to India; alone or otherwise, is an amazing adventure!

So without further adieu, lets get to your questions!

When did you decide that you wanted to go to India?

I’ve always been fascinated with India but thought it was too expensive to go, or that I needed to go with someone. I ended up booking my trip in October 2011, after I’d received my VISA and departed in February 2012. You can read about why I decided to go to India in more detail by checking out this post.

Weren’t you scared to go to India by yourself?

Oh yes, I was terrified. To read about just how scared I was, check out this post.

Once I got there and met the people I was instantly put at ease. At no point during my trip; even when I was walking the streets of Mumbai at 10pm at night, did I feel unsafe. Everyone was very helpful, kind, and gentle. Of course this isn’t to say ‘let your guard down and make silly decisions’. Use common sense and you’ll be fine.

Did you visit a travel clinic before you left? What sorts of shots did you have to get?

Yes, I went to the travel clinic 2 months before my trip. Alberta Health Care has multiple travel clinics throughout the province. The areas I was going to didn’t have malaria, so I didn’t bother with the pills. I was all up to date on my hepatitis shots, chose to get a flu shot, and had to get an update on polio. Rabies was another option but it was $600 so I was willing to take my chances. I’d taken a dose of Dukoral for Dominican which I believe made me very sick, so I decided against it for this trip.

What’s the process of applying for an Indian VISA? Did it take a long time?

I applied for my VISA before I booked my travel. If you’re in Canada, you can visit VFS Global and fill out your application online. I filled it out, got my picture taken, and booked an appointment with the Calgary office. I waited about 20 minutes for my application to be reviewed. The lady asked me to make some changes and come back the next day. I made the changes, went back in the morning, and submitted it. It took about a week to come back to me.

When I go again, I’ll wait 3 weeks before I’m scheduled to go and apply for it then so I have more flexibility. Many Canadian travellers I met did this and said it was fine.

How did you decide where to go?

I’d heard that the south was a beautiful place, so I just went off that. I’d always dreamed of going to Mumbai, so knew I had to stop there. I wish I could say there was a lot of planning on where I was going to visit, but there wasn’t. I just chose what felt right.

Who did you fly with and how much did it cost?

I flew from Calgary to Frankfurt to Mumbai with Air Canada and Mumbai to Trivandrum with Jet Airways. Jet Airways was amazing, Air Canada not so much. In total, my flights cost approximately $1,400CAD. My flights with Jet Airways were insanely inexpensive and I booked them the day before I left after all of my flights with Kingfisher were cancelled (without me being notified)!

What did you consider the necessities to bring?

For more details on healthy essentials for backpacking, check out this post.

I couldn’t have lived without:

  • Probiotics – I seriously believe this is why I didn’t get sick even after eating all the street food. These babies don’t require refrigeration so they’re perfect for traveling! They’re a bit expensive, but worth every single penny. Seriously. If I were only allowed to bring one thing with me, this would have been it.
  • Hair brush – my hair got matted so much.
  • Bug spray – the higher the DEET the better.
  • Vacuum seal bag – Originally intended for my clothes but I ended up using it for my food. It was a total lifesaver. The bugs eat through Ziplocs!
  • Wet wipes – very challenging to find antiseptic wipes and the liquid always spills everywhere. So happy that I brought my own!
  • Croc sandals – they’re so versatile. You can slip them on and off, walk in them for hours… I only used my running shoes once!
  • Mosquito net – the ones the ashram gave out were garbage and when I left the ashram it was harder to find a room that came with one.

Note: because I traveled with a backpack that had many straps, I wrapped my bag in 2 Air Canada bags to avoid the straps from being cut or wrecked. When you check into your flight, just ask the check-in counter for 2 bags. I ended up using the same 2 bags for the duration of my trip.

What do you wish you would have brought?

I actually wrote down a list of the things I wish I would have brought with me so I would never, ever forget again. Here are a couple:

  • Cold medicine – I searched high and low for Dayquil for an entire day
  • Bathing suit – Had I known I was going to be around water, I really would have brought one with me. Fail.
  • Leggings – I bought a lot of beautiful shirts that would have looked great with leggings, but I didn’t bring any!
  • After bite – the antihistamine cream wasn’t the best in India, although I did meet a very nice man; Richard, from the UK who lent me his, so it ended up working out!
  • More vegetable snacks – I was craving raw veggies like made, for an entire 1.5 weeks.
  • Foam roller – I must have dreamed about that thing daily. My muscles were so sore after all that yoga and an ayervedic massage just doesn’t cut it.
  • Variety of clothing – I packed a lot of the same stuff so I didn’t have much to rely on for the various things I ended up doing.

There were also a couple of things I wish I wouldn’t have brought with me including yoga pants, t-shirts, and toiletries. You can find all of this stuff SO easily, everywhere you go, and for a lot cheaper than you can get at home.

How much money did you bring with you?

Before I left, I took out the equivalent of $100 CAD in rupees. It lasted me a really, really long time. Most everywhere you go operates on cash but everything is just so ridiculously inexpensive! In total; not including my accommodations at the ashram or flights, I spent $400 CAD during my entire trip – food, clothing, gifts, tours, buses… everything.

I traveled with a Net+ Pre-Paid MasterCard and a VISA travel card from Citizens Bank. I wanted to bring a MasterCard and VISA because I wasn’t sure what my options would be once I got there. I ended up using the MasterCard only because the FX fee was only 1.5% and ATM withdrawals were $6CAD. Unfortunately this option is not available in the US.

There were ATMs in the village just down the hill from the ashram where I took out money once or twice. Then, when I got to Varkala, I found an internet cafe that did POS (point of sale) transaction cash-advances so I didn’t have to pay ATM fees.

Is it okay to book flights once I get to India? Is it easy to change travel plans?

Practically everyone I met was making up their travel plans as they went. It’s very easy to find internet and travel agents everywhere and book what you need to through them, or just show up somewhere and book your trip.

When I go again, I’ll get a return ticket home and plan the rest as I go. I know it sounds scary, but it’s so normal there!

How long did it take you to get there?

Total travel time from Calgary to Trivandrum (final destination) was spread over 4 days. I left home Sunday night, got to Mumbai Tuesday morning (local) and left for Trivandrum from Mumbai Wednesday morning.

To read about my travels to Mumbai, check out this post.

What were the meals like on the Indian flights?

They were awesome! All were gluten-free and vegetarian, except for the ride from Mumbai to London where there was semolina in my meal. I thought it was potato and gobbled it up, then asked the stewardess what it was. I didn’t make a big scene about it as I’d just finished a huge helping of gluten-filled street food hours before.

I made one gluten exception on my trip; fully knowing I may get sick, but I couldn’t pass up sitting on a street corner in Mumbai enjoying a couple vegetarian samosa with a 7 year old shop owner. Thankfully, I didn’t get sick at all!

When I get to India, what type of transportation can I use? Is it safe to travel in rickshaws?

They have signs all over the Mumbai airport urging travelers not to use the rickshaws. So, I went to the transportation desk (you cannot miss it, it’s RIGHT outside the terminal before you exit the airport) and pre-ordered a cab. From the Mumbai airport to my hotel only 10 minutes away was 300 rupees which I know now is ridiculously expensive. I would have bartered that down had I known it was too expensive!.

When I got to the Trivandrum airport I did the same. When I returned to the Mumbai airport on the way home, I got a 300 rupee cab for a 2 hour ride. Woot!

When I didn’t have a large bag, I took rickshaws and the bus and I was just fine. They are everywhere and the bus drivers are helpful so you never have to worry about getting lost or anything.

What are the hotels like in India? How much do they cost on average?

I stayed at 3 hotels, all varying in cost.

  • $$$$ Hilton, Mumbai Airport  – I’m happy that this was the first place I stayed. It was nice, clean, and reminded me of home but very expensive in India terms. It was a great way to ease myself into a new place… and the room service was awesome!
  • $$$ Hotel Supreme, Mumbai – a dive of a place. I’d booked it last minute through lonely planet, showed up at 9pm at night and they didn’t have the booking. Their terminals weren’t working so I had to pay in cash which left me with 50 rupees of spending money on my last day, hence the sitting on a street corner eating samosa… it was all I could afford!
  • $$ Believe Home Stay (previously named Kaithakuzhi), Varkala – I paid 500 rupees a night for my room. You can get cheaper, but I didn’t want to be in a dorm so this was the next price up from that. It was clean, spacious, on the second floor, quiet, and I had my own hammock. No hot water, but I was used to it at this point. No internet either which was kinda a blessing.

Do people speak English?

Yes, there are so many people that speak English you really don’t need to worry about not being able to find someone to help you. Many of the shop owners in smaller villages do not speak English, but it’s kind of fun that way! I was drawing pictures, dancing around shops trying to explain what I was looking for. It was fun!

Even when it came to ordering at restaurants, if a waiter didn’t know what I was referring to, I walked into the kitchen with him and pointed out what I wanted and what I couldn’t have.

How do you communicate your allergies to the people?

I didn’t have many issues when ordering from a menu. There was generally always someone in the restaurant who knew what I was saying. If worse came to worse, I’d go in the kitchen and point out what I could eat, and also carried around this list of flours that I couldn’t have. The document outlines wheat, corn and gluten allergens. Took me forever to put together… I only used it once though because I wasn’t too concerned about it once I got there.

I shed multiple tears sifting through my photographs and videos of the trip. I want to go back so badly!

Next up, we’ll chat about my experience at Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram.

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