Tag Archives: hygiene

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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Essentials for a comfy trip

Yes, you can rough the backpacking trip and only bring 1 change of clothes and a Swiss Army knife like Bear Grylls on Man vs. Wild but if you have the extra cash and prefer some comforts to backpacking, there are some items that will make a huge difference but not weigh down your bag.  Most of these items can be found at the drug store, Walmart, bartering with friends or for those Canadians out there, Mountain Equipment Co-op.

  • Ear plugs – to drone out a noisy hostelers, fighting geckos, snoring bed mate
  • Quick-dry towel – when you don’t have time to properly dry your towel or if you’re visiting humid places, this is a must to keep your towel bacteria and odour-free.  I have the Adventure Towl which has lasted me 3 backpacking trips so far.
  • Travel wipes – shower replacement, wipe your hands, face, butt (although hopefully not all with the same one)
  • Laundry detergent – just bring a small travel-sized bottle to wash your clothes along the way
  • Sink stopper – you’ll have to eventually wash your clothes (at least underwear) so you’ll need to plug the sink.  This will make any sink your personal washing machine.  Find one that’s a flat mat to fit most sinks.
  • Swiss Army knife or Leatherman multi-tool – I joked about this above but it is very handy to have in case you need to cut anything, open beer bottles, measure something? (why is there always a ruler?!)
  • Head lamp – if you’re going to be doing any camping or be in areas with no electricity, there’s nothing worse than going to bathroom in the dark.  Check out this awesome head lamp!
  • Hostel sheet/sleeping bag liner – this is a MUST to prevent getting bit by bed bugs! You can either buy one or sew a bedsheet in half (very easy instructions here)
  • Plastic and Ziploc bags – these will make it easier to find and pack your things since everything is compartmentalized (i.e. put all your clothes in one bag, toiletries in another, shoes in another etc.), also used to put wet bathing suits, shoes or laundry

As always, open for suggestions so please suggest anything you found that was helpful on your trip!

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The wonderful world of showers

Away with the Fairies Hostel, Hogsback, South Africa

I’ll be the first to admit, although I’m not a dirty-hippie, dreadlocked and black-footed typical backpacker, my hygiene level does significantly decrease while travelling.  Frolics in the ocean become relaxing baths and baby wipes become a must-needed 2 minute shower.  Running water and private bathrooms are luxury amenities and for some, backpacker showering may be horribly unappealing.  But for those of us who can turn a blind eye (or for those of us who don’t wear our glasses or contact lenses while showering), bath time becomes a novelty item much like kitschy souvenirs. So in order to navigate the path to cleanliness, here is a guide to showers across the world! Feel free to leave your experiences or advice in the comments below.

Mandi

Found in: Indonesia and Malaysia
What the?! (a.k.a. how to use):
 A mandi is a traditional bathing technique involving 2 containers of water – a large bucket and a smaller scoop.  Simply scoop water from the large bucket using the smaller scoop, pour the water on yourself and voilà,  a shower! Make sure you don’t contaminate the large bucket with any dirty body run-off water because that may be the only water you’ll get that day.  Typical drainage is a hole in the ground and if you’re in a more modern facility, instead of a large bucket, you may find a spigot to fill your scoop with fresh water.
Tips:

  • Wash your hands first, that’s your sponge/loofah and no one likes a dirty sponge.
  • Girls, wash your hair by flipping your head over, it’s easier this way to get shampoo out with the small scoops of water.
  • If you’re using a mandi with freezing cold water in freezing cold weather (like half way up the 2329m Mount Bromo in Indonesia), don’t worry the shivering and shaking will stop eventually after wrapping yourself in layers of blankets and curling into the fetal position.

Shower Over Toilet
Found in: 
cramped bathrooms and fancy train bathrooms. I’ve encountered it mostly in South East Asia.
What the?! (a.k.a. how to use):
A shower over the toilet is similar to regular western showers except that the shower head is directly over or very near to the toilet.  There is no separate area or bathtub so drainage is again probably just a hole in the ground.
Tips:

  • Water will go everywhere so put your towels, clothes and toiletries far away from your shower area.
  • Put the toilet seat cover down, there’s something gross and uncomfortable about sitting down on a wet toilet seat the next time you need to go.
  • Remove the toilet paper from the showering vicinity.  What’s worse than a wet toilet seat? Wet toilet paper.

Electric Hot Water Shower Heater
Found in: 
anywhere without a hot water tank.  This is one shower that doesn’t discriminate based on geography  – I’ve encountered these in India, Japan, Europe, Hong Kong and South Africa.
What the?! (a.k.a. how to use):
An electric hot water shower heater looks like an electrical fuse box mounted on the wall of the shower near the shower head with pipes coming in and out of it.  It normally has a switch, knob or dial (depending on how fancy the heater is) and/or indicator lights to show that the water is sufficiently heated. Simply flip on the switch/turn the knob or dial to your preferred temperature and wait until the electrical coils inside the panel heat up the water to a lukewarm or scaling hot temperature (for you hot water shower sadists).
Tips:

  • Planning and preparation is key here! Make sure you turn on the heater in advance of your shower or else the water may not be heated until you’re halfway through the “repeat” of lather, rinse, repeat.

Nature’s Shower
Found in: approximately 75% of the Earth’s surface in the form of oceans, lakes, seas, rivers, ponds, creeks etc.
What the?! (a.k.a. how to use): Jump in and enjoy! Don’t do one of those teeter by the edge gently splashing water on your body with your hand moves.  Most likely, you’ll either fall in or some jerk friend will push you in.  Then you’ll just get mad and ruin your showering experience.
Tips:

  • Make sure you’re aware of what’s around you and the local customs before you strip down to your birthday suit.  You don’t want to be perved-on or worse, offend anyone with your pasty body.
  • Try to not use any soap at all but if you must, use environmentally-friendly soap.  You’re already contaminating the water with your grime, the fish don’t need the sodium laureth sulfate, citric acid and methylchloroisothiazolinone also.

Baby/Travel/Make-up Wipes
Found in: your bag.  Baby wipes or travel wipes or make-up wipes (or cloths) can be purchased at grocery stores, convenience stores, drug stores etc.
What the?! (a.k.a. how to use): Wipes can be used if there is no source of clean-ish water nearby.  This often occurs after long bus/train/plane rides or in remote locations.  A showipe (see how I did that? clever, right?) may seem gross but when you’ve been sitting in an 8-hour bus ride in front of a man holding a live chicken with the windows down on a dirt road in 35C, 95% humidity weather (yes, that actually happened in Kenya), a refreshing, slightly moist, cloth is your saviour! Usually, I can get away with using 2-3 wipes before I feel comfortably clean.  Note, you can’t possibly clean every spot on your dirty body with just wipes but all you need to target are the essentials – face, armpits, hands, neck, nether regions.
Tips: 

  • If you’re not allergic, use scented wipes which can mask BO and act as a nice perfume/cologne.
  • Save costs on buying bulk and keep things light in your day pack/bag by separating a few into ziplock bags to keep in your day pack.

So there it is! A starter’s guide to the wonderful world of showers.  Happy showering!

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Questions to ask yourself while planning a backpacking trip

So there’s really no good/bad way to plan a backpacking trip and it really depends on where you’re going.  But here are some questions you should ask yourself (along with my 2 cents) in order to plan a trip that you will truly enjoy.  I’ve followed these general guidelines for my backpacking trips  (Europe, Southeast Asia, India and Africa) and found they worked for me.  However, some may think this is too much/too little planning so you can chose to follow it or not.

 

  • Where do I want to go? Once you’ve figured that out, get a travel book.  This is KEY for backpacking since none of us are experts on a country we’ve never visited before.  Most travel books have sample itineraries and highlights for each country.  Skim through it, google some itineraries online and start mapping a rough path based on what you find interesting.  For example, do you want to do more historical sightseeing? Or go to party hot spots? Or maybe both? You don’t need to plan every single place you’re going to visit but a rough path (like what countries are you visiting? Are you going north to south or east to west?) will help with further planning, especially length of trip and budget (question #3 and #5 respectively). 
    My 2 cents:
    I personally use the Lonely Planet books like a bible while on the road but there are other great books out there like Rough Guides, Frommer’s  etc.  Also, check out the Travel Independent.info sitefor tons of info aimed at backpackers and region specific websites like travelfish.org (for SE Asia).

 

 

  • Why do I want to travel? This may seem like a no brainer or existentialist question but if you know why you want to go, it’ll give you the drive to plan your trip in advance between 10 hour workdays and having a social life.  It’ll also give you a goal for your trip and get your butt out of bed at an early-ish time every day while on the road.  Sometimes backpacking can get exhausting but if you always keep in mind your goal, it’ll be easier to get through the weeks, months and maybe even years of traveling from city to city.  It can be as simple as “I want to see the Eiffel Tower” to “I need to find myself and figure out my path in life”.

 

 

  • How long do I have to travel? This may be the restrictive factor on how many places you can visit and how fast paced you want to move from city to city.  If you have an indefinite period of time to travel, budget may come into play (see point #5) or something that people sometimes forget is how long can you last living out of a backpack and without sleeping in your own comfy bed at home? You’d be surprised how long you can stand wearing the same clothes and having all your toiletries in a plastic bag once you get into the routine of backpacking. 
    My 2 cents:
    Build up your “travel immunity” – pick a comfortable period of time for your first backpacking trip, then double that on your next trip and then double that on the subsequent trips etc.  If you can come up with a number of days based on the list of cities you want to hit, factor in sightseeing and travel time, you should still DOUBLE that time to give yourself buffer for the unexpected (like loving a city and staying longer than planned, getting tips from fellow travelers along the way on must-see places or unreliable transportation).  It’s always better to have more time to see unplanned sights than to rush through your itinerary and miss sights.  TIP: If you come from North America or Europe, do not expect transportation to take the same amount of time in less developed countries than at home.  Hardly any buses go over 70km/h (even on highways) and “express trains” means it’ll stop maybe 15 times instead of 20.

 

 

  • What is my travel style? More on the grimey side or luxurious side? This will be a big factor when deciding your budget (see point #5) and vice versa.  Are you trying to see how far you can push yourself on the hygiene scale or does the thought of squat toilets make you shudder? You’d be surprised on how much you can live without on the road so don’t rule out squat toilets just yet (they’re apparently cleaner and easier to use than Western style toilets).  Ask yourself, do you really need 1000 thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, A/C buses with tinted windows that block the sights/smells/sounds of the landscape rushing by or hot water showers in 45C weather? But don’t go too far off the deep end, everyone needs to keep a certain level of hygiene to avoid getting sick or smelling like B.O. (for your sake and for the sake of the 40 other people packed in with you on the 10 hour bus ride).

 

 

  • What is my budget? Keep in mind that different countries require different budgets.  For example, you can easily live off $30/day in India or SE Asia but if you keep that budget for Western Europe, you’ll be eating sliced bread from the convenience store for every meal (true story) and run a higher risk of getting bed bugs from the 14 bed dorm you’re staying in.  Most travel books have a typical budget/day for each country and a range of accommodation/restaurant choices from low, mid to high end.  If you’re looking for more of a backpacking budget, the Lonely Planet “on a shoestring” guides are great for low budget suggestions. 
    My 2 cents:
    Take your budget/day at home to start with (especially if it’s your first backpacking trip) and start logging how much money you’re spending/day once you start traveling.  After a week of logging, review your expenses and readjust your budget based on that (if you’ve underspent your initial estimate but hated the moldy bathroom then increase your budget or if you found that you didn’t watch the TV that was in your room, maybe you can live with a less expensive place to stay in the next city).

 

 

  • How adventurous am I? This may be a vague question but it’ll help decide whether you want to backpack on the beaten path or venture out on your own.  It also depends on the region since Southeast Asia and Europe has a fairly well-traveled backpacker path with an established tourism industry whereas Africa may not be as easy to travel through.  However adventurous you decide to be, always do it in a safe way – remember, no one cares how hardcore of a backpacker you are when you’re being robbed at gunpoint in a shady alley at night.

 

In the end, as long as you backpack smartly and keep an open mind, you’ll have an awesome and unforgettable trip! If you have any other suggestions on how to plan for backpacking trips, feel free to add your 2 cents in the comments section.

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How to safely travel without carrying around the drugstore

For many of us who take tylenol at the slightest hint of a headache, it may be hard to imagine traveling without the convenience of your neighbourhood drug store.  But when you’re running for a bus/train with a backpack weighing you down, you’ll be happy you were able to pare down your list to only the essentials.

The list below are some of the necessities for any backpacking trip but by no means is this list complete, so please consult your doctor.

  • Tylenol/Advil/whatever pain killer you fancy
  • Dukoral – traveler’s diarrhea vaccine, take in advance and keep in the fridge, get from doctor.
  • Hydrocortisone cream – good for mosquito bites and other random rashes, get over the counter.
  • Bandaids – can be used as tape too!
  • Antibiotic cream
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Cipro(floxacin) – antibacterial for severe traveler’s diarrhea, get from doctor.  Never used it before but good to know it’s there.
  • Wet wipes/naps – clean wounds, dirty hands, bird poop (been pooped on by birds 7 times and counting so it does happen!)
  • Malaria pills – must-have if going to malaria affected regions.  Can get from doctor.
  • Over the counter antacid & anti-diarrhea – to avoid the dreaded ring of fire
  • Anti-nausea medicine  (Gravol) – good for bumpy bus rides, rough boat trips
  • Any other drugs you’re already taking (i.e. birth control pills, allergy medicine, etc)

To be on the safe side, do a bit of research before you leave to see how readily available medicine will be at the places you’ll be visiting.  For example, pharmacies in Thai cities can give you almost anything without a prescription.

In the end, stress causes most illnesses so as long as you stay relaxed and fully embrace the experience, a calm day in bed or at the beach with a good book will be all the medicine you need!

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