“Week 0” posts were the prelude to this 52 Weeks Challenge as they summarized which Lesson Learnt from 2016 which will help me address more carefully this starting 2017.
To be clear the real challenge starts now and, as you might have guessed, my first objective was to plan a 2 weeks trip to India (the extra bonus of this travel was not to have to wonder where to spend New Year’s eve as I was leaving on 28th of December and planning to spend it in Goa!!).
In “Week 1” posts I will try to be as exhaustive as possible about the sites I have visited and hopefully give you the desire to travel to this amazing country. In “Week 2” I will write about 3 major cultural aspects that fascinate me about India and that I am bringing back home.
I actually never thought of Asian countries as a main destination for my traveling as my dream has always be to travel/live in South America (hopefully soon) or visit South African countries first. Maybe their culture is more appealing to me as I consider it closer to our way of thinking or our history.
Then, last year, I started working in a new company on a huge project employing people from all around the world. So for the first time in my career (and personal life) I was working in a mostly Tamil team (Tamil Nadu being a region of South India that I had never heard of before 2016).
Of course the cultural contrast is impressive but I was so surprised & of course happy to discover how rich Indian culture is! When I started talking with my Eastern friends I grew more and more interested in their mindful and relaxed way of living but also in their way of being so interested and conscious about their physical and spiritual well-being. In addition to this calmness that they emanate they have this very complicated history and religion which intrigues me as there is no way of understand it easily.
So my first step was to buy a few books and while people saw me reading some of them they advised for some additional ones. I have not managed to read all of them yet (2017 objective) but they are all major best-sellers that I had never heard of!! Why had I never read about India before!?
This first book is a short summary of hinduism that supposedly explains it clearly. I must say I am still confused but at least with this book you get a glimpse of the complexity you are up against:
The elements of hinduism by Cross, Stephen: “In this comprehensive yet accessible introduction to Hinduism, Cross unravels the complexities of this ancient religion: its thousands of years of history, its sacred texts, myths, and epics, and its various branches. Cross also examines the present state of the religion and what modern Hinduism can offer Westerners today.”
Exactly at the same time one night I came across the movie Eat, Pray, Love on TV. Of course I already knew it and did not want to watch it particularly as I thought of it as of a cheesy movie about the discovery of oneself in a very simplistic way (ok sometimes I do not like Hollywood way of turning everything into a fairy tale although I am myself a pure Disney product! Yes, I have some working to do on inner-consistency).
Anyways I decided to buy the book because: traveling+love story+India! Plus it’s an autobiography and I was interested in this journey from the author’s pure anxiety & hatred of her New Yorker successful life to inner peace and happiness (more in my post Week 1 – How I started reading tons of self-improvement books).
The only thing I have to say is that it is a feel good book that gives hope and the excitement to find yourself by doing things that make you happy! It also convinced me that I HAD to go to India see for myself!
Then one day, while reading on the bus Eat, Pray, Love, someone sitting next to me approached me. It was an Indian guy (not even from work) asking me how I enjoyed the book. I was reading the moment the main character is in India so I told him that and added that I was preparing to go to India myself.
He was apparently happy to hear that and before leaving told me that I should read an amazing novel, Shantaram, that truly describes what is the Indian adventure for a Westerner, in this case a convicted Australian bank robber and heroin addict who escapes from Pentridge Prison and flees to India. The novel is commended by many for its vivid portrayal of tumultuous life in Bombay (by the way that is what I want to visit next).
Two other novels that were vividly recommended to me were The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga & In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India by Luce, Edward.
I did not have any time to finish them before flying to India but they are next on my reading list!
Anyways, to properly travel through India I also needed an actual guide, and I looked for one also including advice for women traveling alone. I went for the India Lonely Planet guidebook – 16th edition, covering both North & South of India, but you can find the exact same guide splitted between North and South (might be easier to carry around). I went for the full 1000 pages guide because although I was planning to only visit my friends and investigate on Ayurvedic medicine both in the South part (see more on Week 2 – Ayurveda), I also knew that all the major breathtaking sites are in the North part and that eventually I would go there: The Taj Mahal, the Himalayan Mountains, the Ajanta Caves, Mumbay, New Dehli, Rajasthan, to quote just a few of them.
Planning to celebrate Christmas with my family in Italy to where I flew for 3 days (I live in Paris), I decided to leave for India after the 28th, resulting in an arrival in Chennai on the 29th. I could only spend 12 days in India which is ok, I decided long before going that this will only be my first time there and I wanted to check how I handled the trip before staying for a longer period. My original plan was to quit my job and live in India for minimum 2 months but I decided on a more pragmatic way (maybe I chickened out but this is not the end of the story).
Anyways, the purpose was to have a good overview of the country knowing that I could not see everything is so little time. But I was more interested by the cultural interaction than by sight seeing. Distances are so huge (at least for us Europeans) that unless you are ok to travel often and for long periods of time it is difficult to see many things.
Chennai: I was landing in Chennai to meet my local friends. As it was already the 29th of December we decided to spend 2 nights there to experience the big city life and then fly to Goa, famous for its 170km of beaches and the night life.
Goa: Spend 2 days there to party and rest on the beach (I knew it would be the only place where I could swim in a bikini and not fully dressed).
Mangaluru: is the chief port city of the Indian state of Karnataka. The purpose was to have a pit stop between Goa and Kerala, the latest being our targeted destination.
Kerala: is one of the prominent tourist destinations of India, with backwaters, beaches, Ayurvedic tourism and wildlife sanctuaries as its major attractions.
Pondicherry: is a popular tourist destination in South India which still preserves much of the French colonial ambiance. Auroville (City of Dawn) is an “experimental” township located 8 km north-west of Pondicherry which is meant to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities.
Considering the distances between each destination it is quickly understandable that it was a fast track journey!
It must be said at this point that because I was meeting Indian friends in Chennai and traveling with them all along, all the traveling arrangements were done by them. In this post I will detail the formalities and the list of items to bring to India. For more details on how we traveled, the places we stayed and useful tips once in India coming from locals you can read my next post Week 1 – Welcome to Tamil Nadu.
Tickets for Chennai are cheap from Europe compared to other destinations in Asia as it is not a touristic destination. Average price is 350 € for a return ticket although I spent 440 € only because I bought it 1 month before going and for the Christmas Holiday season. Normally there is one stop, either with Saudi Arabian Airways (stop in Jeddah), Qatar Airways (stop in Doha), Lufthqnsq (stop in Frankfurt). 13 to 15h trip is ok (only 2 to 4h stop), but some more expensive direct flight can be found.
In terms of bureaucracy it is simple enough and I had little things to do before leaving.
- First check that your Passport has at least 6 months validity after your dates of travel
- Apply for Visa on https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/visa/tvoa.html: for the old fashion application the duly signed physical copy of the application form completed and submitted successfully on the website is to be submitted at the concerned Indian Visa Application Center (IVAC) or directly to Indian Mission/ Post, on a scheduled date of interview along with the requisite supporting documents.
- Note: a service of e-Tourist Visa is available since January 2015 and involves full online application. However you must check your eligibility first. This is the solution I chose and after filling out the form I received the positive response in the next 72h (be careful not to apply to private companies that will charge you additional fees).
When traveling be sure to pack with you:
- Your Passport
- The Visa approved form (several copies)
- Proof of your travel insurance with emergency contact telephone and policy Number
- Flight tickets, e-ticket proof
- Photocopies of important documents like tickets, visa, passport, credit card, itinerary to be kept in each luggage bag and email a copy to yourself
- Trip Itinerary along with hotel address and phone (include all adresses where you are staying especially at arrival where you will need it to complete the Visa application form)
- International driving license if you plan to drive (I do not recommend it but in resort cities like Goa it is easy to travel on motorbike).
- Travel vaccination certificates: make sure you are up-to-date on routine vaccines (including measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, polio vaccine). I did not do any additional vaccines except taking Malaria prevention tablets. You can find Health Recommendations on this link.
South of India is hot and humid so bring clothes that will keep you cool and, and for women, clothes that are not revealing: it is still very conservative so dress modestly especially outside major cities (in the city you can encounter women with short dresses but this will bring you unwanted attention especially if you are not Indian as there are very few foreigners to be seen). Wear comfortable, loose clothing that cover your shoulders / knees / cleavage. As I have very few items like that in my wardrobe I basically dressed in pajamas for 2 weeks.
I recommend to travel light and bring fast drying and easy wash clothing and bring at least one scarf for visiting places of worship. The scarf is also be useful for us Europeans to prevent sore throat when switching from the outside hot weather to restaurants or shops Air Conditioning. In December the weather was not so hot and at night went below 20°C so be sure to bring some sweaters as well.
My ideal luggage (note for my future self):
- 3 pairs of loose, thin trousers
- 6 t-shirts with long or short sleeves (long-sleeved top are recommended for cool evenings and when mosquitoes are out)
- 1 sweater for chilly evenings and airplane
- 1 thin more feminine cardigan
- 1 large scarf to cover head, shoulders while visiting religious places and for going into public places
- Night clothes/sleepwear
- Comfortable light closed shoes to walk in the city streets (not very clean)
- Flip-flops for showering and walking in bathrooms (if you are staying in someone place you will see that there is no separation between bathroom and shower so when you shower you end up with water everywhere).
- I had a large soft bag to carry around my purse, phone, charger, water bottles, sun glasses, anti-mosquito cream and notebooks.
Regarding personal items & travel accessories also try to travel light. You will need:
- Toiletries: if you have, bring small bottles of shampoo, shower gel, face wash, skin lotion – if you only have large bottles at home you can find very cheap ones in any shop in India!
- Shaving razors
- Makeup kit as small as possible
- Toothpaste, Toothbrush
- Tweezers & nail clippers
- Feminine products (difficult, but not impossible to find in India)
- Kleenex – go crazy with that as you will probably use it as toilet paper which does not exist in India except in hotels
- Bath towel
- Soap to hand wash your clothes
- Eye mask & Ear Plugs for plane, night buses & night trains
- Inflatable neck pillow for comfortable sleeping (ESSENTIAL and I did not have it!)
- Cell phone (be sure that it’s “unlocked” and you may be able to buy a local SIM card) & charger with International Adapter Multi plug: if you are bringing any phone/laptop/electronic items, check for an adapter. It is not needed for European devices as they fit into Indian sockets, but it is necessary for American travelers for sure.
Personal Health :
So the above list is the basic and sufficient stuff that you will need if you want to travel light (unfortunately for me I did not have everything when I traveled as I focused on the list of medicine that according to any website should be pretty impressive).
However if you forget something medicines are easily available in India and often you do not require a prescription for over-the-counter medical supplies.
- Personal medication/prescriptions
- Prescription glasses and sun glasses
- Contact lenses and solution
- Anti-sceptic eye drops: pollution is not comparable to western countries and you can find it very disturbing especially if you wear contacts.
- High protection sunscreen (50+)
- Lip balm
- Chewing gums to pop your ears open while take off & landing
- Insect repellent creams or lotions like Odomos (you can find them for less than a euro in local shops and is much more efficient than any western repellent and smells very good – if you want one tube before arriving you can find it on Amazon as well)
- Anti-itch cream – Odomos works for both
- Anti-allergy Tablets
- Anti-bacterial hand sanitizer gel/wipes: I insist on the wipes as I only had gel which is not sufficient when there is no running water in the restrooms.
- Travel sickness tablets or anti-vomiting tablets
- Skin antiseptics/disinfectants
- Eye Drops
- Pastilles for sore throat due to pollution
- Anti-malaria pills if required: not always necessary if you are traveling in a big city but essential near natural spots and when traveling during rainy season.
- Aspirin and/or paracetamol
- Anti-diarrheal product as Imodium
- Anti-acid tablets in case of gastroenteritis
- Antispasmodic medicines to treat symptoms such as stomach pain and spasm
So now that you are packed and ready to go, more on the actual journey on the next post Week 1 – Welcome to Tamil Nadu!