Sunday, 2 December 2007

A Long Overdue Update

Seems like it's been exactly one month since I got back from India, but it seems like a lifetime ago... (Hinduism reference! Get it? LOL) Seriously though, I totally didn't mean to just abandon this completely, there were tons of things I neglected to mention in my hurried internet café bloggings, and I was also going to do a summary, but once we got back it was so easy just to fall back into the grind.

Anyway, I know someone who's going to India soon so it's as good an excuse as any to dispense my invaluable advice for anyone game enough for such an undertaking... Okay, it's not that bad, but some of the pointers below could help. This is by no means an exhaustive list, so I'll probably come back and add/amend it later on. Also, most of them are probably already in your Lonely Planet, but it's good to stress how important some of it is...

Food & Drink

Water - only drink bottled mineral water and ensure that you're the person cracking open the seal for the first time when you get it. Good brands to look out for and stick to are Kinley (made by Coke), Aquafina (Pepsi) and Bisleri (also a big brand). However, the dodgier looking local water brands turned out to be alright anyway, just make sure it's sealed...

Chai - if you've ever had a chai latté in Starbucks, you'll soon realise that it's miles apart from the real chai in India, which is an entirely different experience altogether! We drank it everywhere and didn't really have any major stomach problems (or maybe we did, but we couldn't trace it back to one particular thing...). It's generally boiled pretty well though so should be alright. If you're on the Sleeper class carriage in the train it's fun to get fresh chai in clay cups which you can throw out the window afterwards.

Maximum Retail Price (MRP) - a lot of manufactured/processed items will have somewhere printed on it a 'MRP' which indicates Maximum Retail Price, but if you're in a restaurant or just a dodgy roadside stall they're almost certainly going to charge you twice or more. Unfortunately there's not a huge amount you can do about this, but it's good to know what it should cost. Sometimes the MRP is unsubtly rubbed off... Generally a 1L bottle of mineral water should only be 12Rs.

Chocolate in Ooty - this is a bit random but if you're ever in Ooty make sure you don't buy the local 'handmade' chocolate. It may look delicious in the shop window, but trust me, it tastes nothing like what chocolate should.

How to Deal with Dodgy, Deserted Restaurants - if you're forced to eat somewhere which looks a bit dodgy and you're the first patron there in weeks, or even the rest stop restaurants along the highway, it's a much safer bet to stick to vegetarian food. Paneer Butter Masala is just like Butter Chicken but with cubes of tofu-like cheese instead of chicken and a nice stand-in for real meat.

Breakfast - Indian breakfasts are sorely lacking in variety, so I would highly recommend any Kiwis/Aussies to take some Vegemite/Nutella/Peanut Butter with them. I mean, depends on what you like. Generally you can get access to (under/overdone) toast, but they only give you butter and a sickly sweet jam to go with it. Parantha is kind of like a roti (flat bread) with a curried potato stuffing which doesn't taste too bad, but you can get tired of that pretty quickly.

Seafood - I would stay away from seafood anywhere inland because it's not likely to be fresh... However, in Goa you should definitely try the pomfret fish! It may be a bit more expensive than the other stuff, but it was delicious... Be wary of waiters trying to sell you lobsters though, they may well show you one thing and serve you another, but that's a hazard all over Asia I suppose. The crab I had in Mamallapuram was really good, so I would also recommend that!


Pesky Street Hawkers - everywhere you go, if you look non-Indian then you will be inundated with people trying to sell you crap. The best and I've found quickest way to get rid of them is just to pretend they're invisible and don't even acknowledge their presence. Same goes for beggars. It might be difficult at first, but all they're trying to do is guilt-trip you into buying their stuff, don't be fooled! Trust me, after a week of trying to be polite and saying 'no thanks' to a million people a day, the ignoring option will start being easier to do. Unless you're genuinely interested in their wares (but they're probably ripping you off anyway), better just to ignore them.

Bargaining - this is an essential skill if you want to be doing any kind of shopping (or even for payment of services) because most people have some ridiculous 500% markup on their prices. Depending on what kind of thing it is, you should generally offer at least a third of what they said the price was. As you haggle, make sure you don't end up settling for something which is only, say, 10% off the original price... A surefire way to speed things up is just to start walking away, at which point most people will start shouting lower prices at you. I must admit I wasn't great at this, especially when it was something I knew I wanted to buy...

Regional Specialities - try to find out from your guidebook what your destination is famous for and only stick to buying that, because otherwise the likelihood of being ripped off is considerably heightened.

Show-and-Guilt-Trip Sales Presentations - if you're on a tour it's certain to happen, and even if you're on your own you're likely to be pulled into one of these stores with empty promises of 'just looking, no buying'. It generally goes like this - they show you how they make what they have, what they have in store, and then shrewdly manipulate you into spending a fortune in their shop using mainly guilt tripping. It's best just to avoid these situations altogether by not going into those shops, but when you end up in one, just be firm and rude, if necessary. I mean, it's entirely possible you might want to buy some of their stuff, but depending on what it is, there's probably a way to get it cheaper. For example we bought a load of tea in Jodhpur, but when we were in a supermarket in Ooty we saw the same thing but heaps cheaper... It's helpful to shop around if you have time. Use your discretion and be careful, basically!

Travel & Transport

Travel Agencies - I have mixed feelings about these because even though I know they take a ridiculous amount of margin, it can take a lot of the hassle out of things. However, given the choice again I definitely wouldn't have chosen one for the beginning of our trip. It's especially important to avoid travel agencies when booking one off things like train or bus tickets because they're totally going to cream it, and speaking of which...

Night Buses - definitely avoid night buses when there is a night train alternative!! We went on two, and both turned very badly. Plus the fact that whoever's selling it to you is probably making heaps of profit. Unless you'e super strapped for cash (buses are cheaper than trains), it's just not worth the pain.

Trains - it pays to book in advance because they can often be sold out, especially in high season, but always book at the official ticket office (which should be in your guidebook). When you're waiting in the line random people might come up and tell you the train is full, then sell you a bus ticket with a hefty commission attached, but just ignore people who isn't the one sitting behind the window. Generally you have to fill out a booking form before you go up to the window to actually book/pay, so to avoid queuing twice, when you first get to the ticket office push towards the counter and grab a form first. Some train stations also have tourist-dedicated booking offices which helps a lot. On the train itself, 3AC (an air-conditioned car with 3-tier bunks) is the best option for most foreigners, especially on overnight trains. On a short or daytime-only journey it can be fun to go on Sleeper class a few times just to get the 'real' experience though, you'll get tons of stares and people trying to talk to you though.

Auto-rickshaws & Taxis - one of the most important things you'll learn in India is never trust a rickshaw driver, which also applies to taxi drivers. They will always be trying to take you to their hotel (to get comission) or tell you some tourist attraction is closed so they can take you somewhere further away, or take you to their travel agent friend to rip you off even more. Always agree on a fare before you start the journey, which should hopefully match what the guidebook says. Unfortunately you won't always know what's a fair fare, but if there are several taxis around it helps to ask around first to see if someone else has a better offer. However in many tourist attractions they seem to have formed a price-fixing alliance against tourists which won't help much.

Government Buses - we actually found these fantastic value for money when we were travelling around the south of India. At least they pretty much always stop at a bus station which is on the guidebook's map, and buses between major centres are so frequent that it doesn't matter if you miss one, just hop on the following vehicle... Of course the only downside is that they can be a tad uncomfortable, especially when going over the ubiquitous potholes on the highways or up the winding roads towards Ooty (very sore bum afterwards).

Local Flights - if you can, definitely arrange this yourself online at an internet café, because it'll be cheaper than through an agency (of course!). We went with Air Deccan/Kingfisher for our Delhi to Mumbai flight, and booking was pretty smooth, you just need your credit card, they give you a confirmation number, and when you show up at the airport you just quote them the number, and show them your passport about a dozen times and it's all sorted! Being in an air-conditioned guarded airport (only passengers can even enter the terminal) is a refreshing change from being in a noisy, crowded train station.


Booking Ahead vs. Turning Up? - Of course there's pros and cons to both. The pro of booking ahead is of course that you're ensuring you have somewhere to stay, which is super helpful for when you first arrive in the country, if you know you're going to be arriving in a town quite late at night, or there's a big festival happening and all the hotels fill up super fast. Booking ahead will also eliminate the worry of people rightly or wrongly telling you a particular place is full and leading you somewhere else for their commission. The con is that you may well get a better price if you just turn up somewhere and start asking about prices. But again, if you're wandering around with your 15kg packs people are going to start asking if 'you want see nice room?' which means they are going to get commission if you decide to stay there... Of course a problem arises if you're wanting to go where they want to show you anyway, and when you stay there they will demand a commission from the hotel, which equals a higher room rate for you... Turning up can also allow you to stay somewhere not mentioned in the guidebook which may also end up being cheaper and/or nicer. I wouldn't recommend that during high tourist season or if there's a festival though. Then again, sometimes you can get totally caught off-guard, such as the unavailability of a decent hotels room in the hole known as Coimbatore...

AC or Non-AC? - Sometimes a non-airconditioned room is perfectly adequate for cooler places as long as they still have a ceiling fan to keep the air circulating and drive away mosquitoes.

Tipping - of course this depends on how generous you are and what kind of thing the person's done for you. Quite often as soon as you arrive at a hotel there will be people jostling to grab your bags in the hope of a monetary reward at the end. If they're the kind who stands around and waits for you to tip them before they leave you alone, give them 10 or 20 Rs and that's about the fair amount. If they ask for more, they're just guilt tripping you so it depends on how firm you can put your foot down I suppose. In some tourist attractions such as the elephant ride in Jaipur they try to force you to give some exorbitantly high tip, but again, a tip is a tip which is up to the giver, if they pressure you too much just start threatening to call for the authorities and they should leave you alone...

Useful Things to Have

A Local Simcard - I don't know what I would've done without my Indian simcard, because we used it all the time. I mean, we would have managed, but it would've been way more of a hassle trying to borrow phones from everywhere. You can use it to book a guest house at your next stop, ask about bus or train times, or track down a missing camera... Of course it depends on how long you're spending there, but a prepay doesn't cost that much and it's always good to know you have something to fall back on!

Some Laundry Powder and Travel Clothesline - since washing machines are more costly than just hiring manual labourers, there's no such thing as laundromats where you can just put in a $2 coin for the machine and wash all your clothes at once. No, they have to be taken away by either the hotel or the laundry service shop and charge you per item of clothing, down to the last sock. As you can see this ends up being pretty expensive after a while... I would recommend washing at least your own underwear and socks in the hotel room each night as you go. Shower gel can also help if you don't have laundry powder.

Okay, I think I'll leave it there for now, more later!

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