Category Archives: India

How to survive India while backpacking and have an awesome time!

Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India

Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India

Oh India…the pot of gold at the end of the spice route, known for delicious food, sacred gods and Bollywood. Such an interesting and friendly country but for those who don’t know what to expect, India can be a huge culture shock from our comfy western ways. Never fear! Here are a few tips on backpacking through India, actually surviving, and having an AWESOME time!

1. Bring an antidote to the dreaded “Delhi belly”

I don’t know the exact statistic but out of all the people I know that visited India, 90% of them have had stomach problems while there (the other 10% were either from India and somehow grew immunity which seems like a scientific enough explanation OR they have been feeding their stomachs disgusting food for years so it was a walk in the park. I belong in the latter – all those years of greasy Chinese food and late night McDonalds visits finally paid off!)

For the rest of the 90%, the best way to combat stomach problems is precaution and drugs! And no, I don’t mean illegal drugs. I mean the talk to your doctor and get a prescription kind of drugs. I went to see my trusty travel doctor in Canada and he suggested that I don’t take Dukoral because it wouldn’t help in India. Instead, I was told to stay away from drinking tap water, bring along anti-diarrhea medicine (Immodium) and received a prescription for trusty ciprofloxacin which is an antibiotic taken after the initial signs of Delhi belly (i.e. diarrhea). I didn’t need to take the cipro in India but my friend and travel buddy, Mike, swears by ciprofloxacin when he took it and regained his appetite after losing 10 lbs in a week-long battle with the toilet. Trust me, even the strongest and healthiest get sick in India. Just ask Mike – all it took to take him out of commission was one dirty train ride.

2. There will be people EVERYWHERE.

The country’s population is over 1.2 billion and all of that is squeezed into around 3,287,263 square kilometres – that’s approx. 371 people per square kilometre which means yes, there will be lots of people and yes, they will be everywhere that you want to be. Instead of stressing out about how congested the streets are or getting pushed around in a train, just sit back, relax and enjoy the symphony and theatre show that is before you.

The best way to conquer it is to join in on the fun. Mike and I quickly learned that crossing 8 lanes of traffic is a lot easier when there are 50 other jaywalking buddies beside you. We played the game of count how many schoolchildren they can fit onto one bike rickshaw (the number to beat was 13 by the way) instead of turning on the TV while enjoying our morning chai tea. The intense density of the country only adds to the buzz and will make you even more grateful when you eventually get a patch of sand that you can claim as your own to wiggle your toes in.

3. Queuing is an art.

Queuing (or lining up for us North Americans) does not really exist in India. It’s more of an elaborate dance of wits and patience. Don’t be surprised if you are touching the person in front of you in line and same thing for your suddenly very friendly neighbour behind you. This is to prevent anyone else from slipping in between or any type of budding (front bud, back bud, switchbacks etc). However, none of this actually makes a difference because it’s all about commanding the attention of the person behind the counter – think of a super busy club bar but a thousand times worse and on crack. Whether it’s buying a ticket at a train station, queuing to see the Taj Mahal or lining up to buy water, it all comes down to an art.

I suggest you come up with a plan because here’s one place where western manners and etiquette will not make a difference in service quality. Mike and I devised a very clever and effective method. Due to my smaller, ninja-like size, I would squeeze my way into any small opening at the counter and Mike, being double my size, 6ft 100 inches tall and sporting a very threatening beard, would put both of his burly arms out straight and rest his hands on the counter surrounding me in a protective shield and allowing me to shout at the person behind the counter. This helped tremendously as Mike’s main responsibility was to prevent people from sneaking in so I could focus on our primary task of buying Micky D’s vanilla ice cream cones.

4. Bargain everything.

You know how you always wonder if you’re being ripped off while in a foreign place? Well in India, that answer is always yes. The fabric of Indian consumerism was built on bargaining so everyone knows that the listed price is not the real price. You can bargain taxi rides, hotel rates, souvenirs, heck, you can even bargain internet cafe rates. The key is not to get the lowest price possible but to get to a price that you’re comfortable with paying while keeping your dignity. Some people are masters of the bargain and can put on a bluff worthy of an Oscar. Others can’t hide how much they want something and give in at the earliest sign of defeat. It doesn’t matter if your rickshaw ride was double what your bus seat neighbour paid, you’re comfortable with what you paid and didn’t get spat on. I would call that a win.

My general rule of thumb is to ask for the price, think about it and come up with a maximum price you’re willing to pay. Then counter offer with 50% of the asking price. If you think they quoted something ridiculously high, 20-30% of that will put them in their place. Act like you can walk away with it (even though we all know we can’t walk away from pashminas and wood-carved statues of Ganesh). Never get angry and always be polite and courteous. This is all part of the game so instead of being insulted, look at it as a challenge.

5. Last but not least, just take a deep breath and relax.

India can be stressful – you’ll get lost in alleyways, transportation will take twice as long as you originally planned, and you will be side-stepping cow, dog, chicken, goat and buffalo poop in flip-flops – but just take a minute to pause and remember, you’re in frickin’ INDIA! How awesome is that?!

For all the stress and hectic days, India has so many beautiful and unique things to offer. Don’t let the little, unfamiliar details ruin your trip and if anything, these stressful moments will all turn into great party stories at home. Just ask me about the time I was dragged onto a movie train by a crowd of people or woken up by kids yelling and trying to feed an elephant that was dodging traffic in the narrow streets. That’s India for ya!

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VIDEO: Unemployment Tour 2011

Just a little video of my backpacking trip in 2011 to Maldives, India, UAE, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and Botswana. Enjoy!

Watch in HD

Thanks Mike, Tamara and Antonio for the videos and for being awesome travel buddies!
Song: Get Free by Major Lazer

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Amritsar: last stop in India…figuratively and literally

Golden Temple, Amritsar, Punjab, India

I can’t believe I’m writing about our last stop in India – it seems like just yesterday that we landed in Trivandrum, all fresh faced, bright eyed, pale and clean! Who would have thought that we would traverse the entire country from south to north in one month, gaining experiences I can’t even properly describe, all while slowly lowering our standards for hygiene.

Mike and I took another side trip while in Punjab to visit Amritsar.  This city is known for the beautiful Golden Temple and it’s proximity to the Pakistani border (hence, literally the last stop in India).  Mike’s cousin, Jyotika, was gracious enough to organize a taxi to drive the 4 hour journey from Ludhiana to Amritsar.  Along the way, we ate our super healthy packed lunches of pooris, cold coffee and Fanta, all while drifting in and out of sleep (for those who don’t know me, I can fall asleep in any moving vehicle whether it’s a car, bus, subway, train, plane etc).  We finally arrived in Amritsar and made a beeline to the Golden Temple.  All I can say to describe it is “boy, is it gold!” The actual temple is surrounded by a body of water that resembles a moat and is enclosed by colonial-looking white buildings all around.  There were a lot of people there even though it was considered a “slow” day.  The Golden Temple is one of the holiest temples for Sikhs and they bathe in the water around the temple to purify themselves.  You can buy offerings (food, flowers etc) to bring into the temple and we thought about it but found out from another tourist that the lineup would take 2 hours.  Maybe if we were devout Sikhs or if it wasn’t 35C outside, we would’ve braved the lineup but we were sweating just standing still in the shade so admiring the temple from afar would suffice.

Next, we visited Mike’s cousin who is in the Indian Army.  He sent an army truck to pick us up which only had seats in the open back.  With Mike and I sitting there, passerbys probably thought either 1. “Who are those foreigners? Are they important somehow?” or 2. “What did those foreigners do this time to get arrested by the army?”.  I’m pretty sure it was the latter since after a month of backpacking, we looked more like vagrants than foreign dignitaries.

After lunch with Mike’s cousin, we headed off (still in the army truck) to the India-Pakistan border in Wagah to watch the border closing ceremony.  All I can say is that Indians are patriotic when it comes to competing against Pakistan.  That may be a gross understatement but it was insane! There’s stadium seating on both sides of the border gates and the 2 countries compete in fanatic cheering, flag waving and flamboyant gesturing.  There’s even a hype-man dressed in an all white sweat suit with “INDIA” on the back of it, white sneakers and a whistle to rouse up the crowd.  The soldiers start off by yelling as long as they can into the hype-man’s microphone (at which point I started giggling) and then perform all these high kicks and salutes (at this point I’m laughing out loud) one at a time (which means I laughed hysterically 5 more times).  I swear, some of the kicks were so high, I thought they would knock themselves out.  With their tall feathered hats, it reminded me of birds and their mating dances that you see on the Discovery Channel.

We then took off on the 4 hour trip back to Ludhiana in the dark which was like a roller coaster ride! The taxi driver was a good driver but in the dark, Indian roads are another story.  He would pass large trucks with only one lane and cut cars off, all while honking the horn because apparently if you honk the horn, you can do whatever you want.  At one point, we were driving on a pile of sand used for construction in the middle of the road trying to look for a shallow way of getting off the mound and back onto the paved road.  You think that’s crazy, the crazier thing was that we weren’t the only cars doing that – there were at least 5 other cars around us all trying to find a “safe” way back onto the road.  We also passed through farmland where the fog was so thick, we couldn’t see more than 2 feet ahead of the car hood.  It was slightly scary but also very calming for some reason.

We finally got home and packed our stuff since we’re heading back to Delhi to do some souvenir shopping before returning back to Western civilization.  No, I’m not talking about coming home to Canada but heading off to the mirage city of Dubai!


Shimla: green and clean town among the mountains and monkeys

Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, India

It’s been awhile since my last post but the last week has been super busy! We’ve been staying with Mike’s family in Ludhiana and they’ve been super welcoming – I never knew I could eat as much as we’ve been eating for the last week!

We were able to sneak away from family duties to go to our very first hill stationShimla! We boarded a bus from Ludhiana to Shimla which took around 6 hours but thankfully, Mike’s cousin Jyotika packed us a tasty picnic basket of puri bhajis, grilled cheese sandwiches and Fanta – mmmm breakfast of champions.  We felt like school children with packed lunch boxes being ushered onto a school bus for a school trip!  The bus ride up the mountain lasted 4 hours and it was so scenic.  There were small towns dotted along the lush green mountainside and cows grazing on farm land that stepped down the mountain.  The roads were curvy and barely wide enough for 2 cars, let alone 2 buses.  Throw in normal Indian driving of swerving and honking and the ride itself was an adventure! Thank god I didn’t get car sick like some of the children on the bus – I had to hold the window shut at times as a vomit splash guard.

We finally arrived at Shimla in one piece (although slightly heavier since we demolished the packed food that was supposed to last the entire day) and set off looking for a place to stay.  What no one told us (or we were too oblivious to notice) was that all the roads in the town are windy and we had to walk uphill to the town above us.  By the time we got to the city center, we were winded and ready to just pick any place to stay.  Thank god we found Hotel Dreamland which not only has clean rooms and a TV but a gorgeous view of the mountains.  People had warned us that it was cold in the mountains but being proud Canadians, we brushed it off with the reasoning that if we can handle -30C Canadian winters, we can handle what they considered “cold”.  Boy were we wrong! Maybe it’s because we had become accustomed to boiling Indian 35+ degree weather but we were freezing – and it was only 15C! At night, we had to wear all our clothes, sleep in the hostel sheets and cover ourselves with thick blankets (and my nose was still frozen).

The plus side was the the high altitude brought along such fresh and clean air! Also, Shimla made such a good effort to be  green.  There were garbage cans everywhere (something I hadn’t seen anywhere in India), pedestrian only roads (so not only no air pollution from the car exhausts but also no noise pollution from the constant beeping horns) and the entire town has been non smoking since last year.  It reminded me of a quaint Swiss town nestled in the Alps except our backdrop was the Himalaya Mountains.  Probably because it was founded as a summer vacation town for the British.  There are mountains in every direction and for miles and miles – truly breathtaking! We watched the sunset from our hotel balcony and it was a sight to see! The sky changed colours with every passing minute with such vivid blues, reds, oranges and purples.  The way the sun set, there were shadows all around it and at times, it cut the sun in half – something I’ve never seen before.

We found a very cute coffee shop that was started as a cooperative by coffee farmers back in the day called the Indian Coffee House.  The coffee was sooo good! Shimla is the state capital of Himachal Pradesh so the coffee shop was packed with government workers on a coffee break.  For dinner, it was so cold outside that I decided on hot & sour soup, hot chocolate and Manchurian chicken just to warm up.  Since Shimla is close to China, the Hakka food was amazing there (for those who don’t know what Hakka food is, it’s a mix of Chinese and Indian food, like spicy Chinese food).

The next day we hiked up the mountain to Jakhu Temple.  The hike was a good 30 minute uphill climb which required some breaks or as we tried to mask them as, photo ops.  There’s a sign at the bottom of the hill that says if you’re under 30, it takes 30 minutes for “absolutely fit” people to go up the mountain so I guess we weren’t that bad although I didn’t feel fit at the top when we were out of breath.  It’s probably a combination of the thinner air (elevation of Shimla is 2200m above sea level) and all the delicious food we’ve been eaten this entire trip.  The temple has a giant statue of Lord Hanuman who was the monkey lord which is exactly what surrounded the temple! There were monkeys everywhere – it was like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds but with monkeys.  There were at least 50 monkeys all around the temple grounds, some older, some younger, some fatter and some of them just babies but it was insane! We had to be on guard everywhere we walked because the monkeys are known to attack people.  Using the same calm strategy as Cesar Milan on Dog Whisperer with dogs, I tried to keep my cool but monkeys would claw at my pants and hiss! I would just push Mike in front of them since he has his rabies shots and I don’t.  🙂  We calmly and slowly moved around the monkeys and took some photos before going back down the mountain, which was so much easier than our uphill climb.

The next day, we left Shimla but the main attraction is actually the toy train that connects Shimla to the town of Kalka at the bottom of the mountains (the railway and voyage is actually an UNESCO World Heritage site).  The toy train is really cute, it only has 6 cars which seat only 25-30 people each and an engine that used to be powered by steam until 2 years ago.  Too bad it changed because the engine pumped out exhaust for the entire 7 hour trip which I blew out of my nose for the next day in the form of black snot.  However, the scenery was worth it! The track winds around and even through the mountains – over rock bridges that reached 4 stories in height and through over 100 tunnels.  Passengers would yell as we passed through the tunnels to hear the echoes from the stones.  Some of the turns were 45 degrees so you can see the entire train turning with a sheer vertical drop on the side.  We passed by many other hill station towns, some bigger than others but all with that quaint town feel.  There were children who would wave and run along with the train or men would appear out of nowhere and wait for the train to pass before continuing their journey up the mountains.  I stuck my head out of the window to catch the views of the mountainsides the entire ride – so much so that my neck started to hurt! Although it was a long journey, I was sad when we finally arrived in Kalka on flat ground.

So for the only hill station we visited in India, Shimla was amazing – definitely worth it!

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Delhi: India’s Ottawa – clean and nice

View from Jama Masjid, Old Delhi, India

Finally made it to India’s capital –Delhi (or as Isaac says I should pronounce it, “Deal-ly“).  We took a short train ride from Agra to Delhi which was very comfortable.  Here’s a trick in case you’re stuck without a reservation on a train.  A lot of journeys allow you to buy a General Compartment ticket which is very cheap but then get onto any coach you want (whether it’s AC, sleeper etc) and ask the train rep to upgrade your ticket if there’s any unreserved seats.  You’ll have to pay the difference in cost but at least you get to travel in some comfort.  In our case, we were told by the reservation office that all the seats were reserved and only General Compartment was available but got upgraded to very comfortable 3AC seats once we got on board the train and everyone else in our compartment did the same thing!

Delhi is such a wonderful city – maybe they cleaned it up for the Commonwealth Games – and so modern but still full of history.  We checked into Ajay’s Guest House in the Paharganj district (behind the New Delhi Train Station and backpacker central!) and grabbed tandoori chicken dinner, mmmm so good.  The weather here has been perfect – sunny but breezy so very comfortable for sight-seeing.

The next morning, we took the very modern, clean and efficient metro (the TTC looks like a wooden oxcart compared to Delhi’s metro system) to Raj Path which is a long and wide street which is surrounded by government buildings.  On both sides of the street, there are grassy patches where we saw people playing cricket, tag and cards.  We visited the Secretariat buildings, which are the parliamentary buildings, and saw men in suits lying down on the grass taking naps – oh how typical of government workers, taking naps midday! We also saw the President’s House which reminded me of Buckingham Palace – there’s even guards that march back and forth.  Additional guards are the troop of cheeky monkeys that hang out in front of the gates and eat all the landscaping flowers.  We then visited the National Museum which had exhibits on India’s history – all the way from ancient civilizations to modern-day India.  There were sculptures from the different ancient civilizations and minature paintings that were popular during the Mughal Empire.  One very interesting exhibit was relics of Buddha (i.e. his bones!).  After the Buddha was cremated, they split his remains for all the Kings that were present and they found these relics in India by his father’s hometown.  There were monks paying their respect and asian people bowing every time they walked by.  We then came home and watched TV (yes, we are ballers with a TV in our room!) and there’s a Rocky marathon going on so watched Rocky 3 – oh Stallone, how young you once were.

The next day, we ate breakfast on a roof top overlooking the narrows streets in Paharganj, watching the comings and goings of people below.  There were some very interesting things to see like a cycle rickshaw carrying 10 school children or this old woman carrying baskets of sand on her head back and forth from a giant mound in the street to the small mixer 10 steps away.  We then took the very nice metro to Old Delhi to visit the Red Fort.  After seeing everything in Agra, we were sort of forted out so didn’t really spend that much time there.  We also visited the Jama Masjid which is India’s largest mosque.  We climbed (barefoot across rocks and pebbles by the way) up the tower and got a great view of Delhi! There were houses and buildings in all directions! We had all intentions of sight-seeing some more but was interrupted by the greasy but familiar smell of McDonalds! Mike and I were so giddy and practically stampeded people trying to get inside.  There were some different items on the menu we just HAD to try like the Chicken Maharaja Mac (like a Big Mac with chicken patties and spicy masala mayo) and the McAloo Tikki (a vegetarian pattie with spicy masala mayo) and Schezuan McNugget dipping sauce! It made us so happy and itis-ed that we had to go home after and take a nap.  But it was all worth it! To top off the evening, we watched Rocky 4 – the slow motion running scenes between Apollo Creed and Rocky made us laugh.

The last full day in Delhi was spent at the Gandhi Smriti (Memorial).  We took the metro but had to walk another 20 minutes to the memorial.  Along the way, the streets were tree-lined, wide and so clean! All the cars were using the roundabouts properly (which we haven’t seen since arriving in India!) and there were sidewalks (no more walking along the street).  We saw all these estates with gates, high barb-wired fences and security with machine guns perched in posts.  We then realized that these were the houses of politicians like High Court Justices and army/navy Generals.  We finally got to the Gandhi Smriti and it was so peaceful.  The grounds were so nicely kept and they highlighted Gandhi’s final steps from his room to the prayer altar where he was assassinated by a Hindu extremist.  There’s a memorial where he died with his last words inscribed and they’ve kept his room in the same condition.  There were artifacts on display like his infamous glasses, cane and pocket watch.  There was also a museum on his life,  philosophy, death, martyrdom and the timeline of India’s fight for independence.  We didn’t understand some of the information and didn’t know if it was whether the English they use is so proper or it’s a case of loss in translation.  I would like to think it’s the latter so that I don’t feel dumb.  We then walked around some more and even saw a man walking a monkey on a leash! Then to end the marathon, we watched Rocky Balboa – Stallone’s so old and the acting’s so bad but it was still great entertainment!

Today, we leave for Ludhiana in the Punjab state to visit Mike’s family!

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