The new year is often a time for reflection on the past year, I however have been reflecting on my time in India and the lessons that I have learnt from that period of travel.
I wrote a sporadic travel journal from the 6 weeks that Joe and I spent in India, but I do have the details of every place that we stayed, the trains and planes that we took and about 5 days of every rupee that we spent (that got old pretty quick). Below isn’t every lesson, but I plan to write more about this past trip in the lead up to our next one, I need the practice.
Let’s go back to the middle of 2011. Joe and I had been dating for just over a year, he was still living with his parents and my best friend Simonne had just started living with me. We had a groovy little house and really cheap rent due to some salt damp issues in the house. Simonne’s cousin was going to be married in Shimla, India, in November that year, and her talks of travel, ignited the spark in me to go away too. The original plan was to go to Singapore and then go to India to meet up with her, but as my relationship with Joey grew and we thought that we were ready to go on a trip together, the plans changed and evolved.
This all happened early in our relationship, so we were both a bit hesitant at first about if we were “ready” for this. It obviously worked out – we are now NEWLYWEDS!!! This trip was a real strengthening period for us, we learn’t a lot about each other through the trials and tribulations that travel brings you.
So I suppose that brings us to the first lesson:
1. Travelling with your significant other (your Joe), is a fantastic testing ground for the bigger things you will do in life.
You will soon find out far more about your significant other than you would back at home. These are some good questions to ask yourself when embarking on travel with that special someone: How do you handle money together? Can you even talk about it? What do you do when your handed shit filled underwear? How are you at compromise? Where do your individual strengths lie? Do they complement each other. I’m no relationship expert, but I do have a really great one with my husband.
Joe and I planned a very ambitious itinerary that would take us all across India. We didn’t end up meeting up with Simonne due to timing.
The Original Plan
4th/5th Dec 2011 – Chennai
6th Dec – 12th Dec 2011 – Darjeeling
13th Dec – 18th Dec 2011 – Calcutta
18th Dec – 22nd Dec 2011 – Pondicherry
22nd – 28th Dec 2011 – Hampi (We extended our stay here by a week)
4th Jan – 8th Jan 2012 – Kerala (Never made it due to our change of plans)
4th Jan – 7th Jan 2012 – Goa/Gokarna
7/8th Jan 2012 – Bangalore
We spent hours on the India Mike forums asking questions and reading their articles, we read through our guide books, we had both a Rough Guide to India (which we brought with us) and the Lonely Planet guide books. Looking over my travel journal from the time, it was really ambitious. It also made no sense. We traveled across the country and back multiple times. We should have planned a more streamline trip, rather than just picking a bunch of places that we wanted to go. We also pre-booked and arranged too much of our accommodation which meant that when we wanted to mix up our plans or we got to the guest house and found that it was in the middle of nowhere. A lesson that I want to take from this is:
2. Plan only the minimum accommodation – book your first night and then find something by looking and asking around.
This is what we are planning on doing on our upcoming trip. With the exception of places we are going to in high-season or Japan which requires preplanning.
We also booked an extremely long and tedious three day cruise of the Sundarbans, from a travel booth on Sudder St in Calcutta. We had read about the Royal Bengal Tigers which occupied this UNESCO World Heritage site and hoped to have a glimpse of them within the halophyte mangrove forest, which was on the Bay of Bengal. Three days of seeing the same mangroves & water and loud, obnoxious & often drunk businesses men who happened to be on the same tour group as us was enough to drive one mad. We also got locked into our accommodation in Calcutta, which we didn’t use for the three nights but still had to pay for because I had prearranged it. Booking the trip to Sundarbans was done on a complete whim after we read about it in our guidebook on the train from Darjeeling to Calcutta. It probably would have been better to do a bit more research before we booked and committed.
The one good thing about the whole experience was the trip we took to the local village. It was on the their market day, it was full of people and it was really nice to be able to walk around on our own. I was fascinated by the mud houses and mud stoves, the use of portable solar panels and the old municipal buildings which were now being used as a school and during extreme weather as refuge.
From this we realised that we don’t really like organised tours, we prefer to be active, on our feet and walking around and that sitting for 3 days on boat is really boring.
3. When booking a tour, ask for the itinerary! We didn’t and we didn’t check to see if it would suit us.
Another really important aspect of safe travel is making sure that you have the vaccinations that you need to avoid preventable diseases. We made appointments with our doctors to get a gazillion travel vaccinations and spent what felt like a gazzilion dollars on them. We also bought a travel first aid kit through the Travel Doctor in Hindmarsh Square, SA which was a true lifesaver. When you are a client of the Travel Doctor you also get a Skype number to call when you are sick or need advice. We used this invaluable service when Joe had terrible stomach pain, they told us what to use in our first aid kit and how to treat what was wrong with him. This saved us a trip to a foreign hospital/doctor which I’m sure most people want to do. So many blogs will tell you not to worry about packing just-in-case medication, as you can often find in local pharmacies and cheaper, however the peace of mind that came with having it at hand, when you have someone you care about writhing around the bathroom floor in pain is not something balk about. We got sick a few times in India, sometimes it was nothing terrible, but other times it was food poisoning which felt like you had a thousand ninjas in your stomach stabbing your gut up or 12 horrendous hours on a train, when you wake up and realised that you passed out in your own shit and vomit in the trains bathroom (this is now Joe’s favourite travel story). So here is another lesson:
4. Go to the travel doctor and bring those antibiotics with you. Other items that were of use in the travel kit was: antiseptic, bandaids and paracetamol! Bring twice the hydrolyte they give you though. Great for treatment of both hangovers and food poisoning.
Even though this trip was relatively short we both found immense value in having time away from each other. I had my 24th Birthday while in Hampi and that morning I had met pair of women from Wales/UK, they were in India for a volunteer trip and they would be going onto Kerela to work in a medical clinic, we chatted over breakfast and then decided to spend the afternoon together, shopping and seeing some sites. I did this without Joey because he wanted to ride a scooter over to a neighbouring town with a guy from Melbourne we had met at the guest house, and more importantly because it is OK to not spend every single moment with your travel partner. If you feel safe to have a few solo days then have them. It will stop you from getting sick of each other in long run or make it better if you already are.
5. Take a break from your travel partner – even if its only for a few hours, just take that time to be without them
Train travel in India is great. Do a little research into the safety and quality of the lines that you are travelling on as some are in disrepair and derailments have been know to happen in some places. You should aim to book your train tickets as far in advance as you can. You get a greater choice of the class that you want to sit in and also if you are getting an express or stopping all stations train service. The blog Seat 61 is really helpful when planning train travel and you can book in advance with Cleartrip, which was our only option back in 2011, but now you can book with the government website India Rail. If you are doing an over night trip and can afford it – go for AC Class 1 – we got a private room and linen which was very nice. But for the day – AC 2 or 3 or chair car is also fine. Bring snacks and water. Our train trip up to Darjeeling was only 12 hours long but our trip back was 20 hours. There was only a crisp wallah and we had no idea how longs the breaks at the stations would be, so we were too scared to get off and find food. We were so hungry at the end of it, having only eaten chips and a packet of cookies from Cafe Coffee Day.
6. Bring snacks and water or be brave enough to ask if you have time to get off at the station to get supplies.
Souvenirs and trinket shops are the same in every state that you go. We got dragged into a dozen different ones by rickshaw drivers (a common scam) and saw the same sandalwood figurines and littles boxes and trinkets. We should have just found another driver but it wasn’t all bad. We got driven around and got see a lot more of some neighbourhoods than we would on foot and we never felt pressured into buying when we got into the shops either. I think we went into every bookstore that we came across after Joe discovered that the Tin Tin comics were sold and a 1/4 of the price that they were in Australia and he then slowly collected the entire collection and carried them around in his backpack over the six weeks we were India. His pack weighed a ton. We had to purchase extra luggage to bring them home.
7. Don’t buy an entire collection of comics while backpacking. It is very heavy. Actually the real lesson is to think long and hard about what you are buying and if the added weight is worth it or if it would better to post it back home.
I’m not without fault. In the last two weeks of the trip I had acquired a beautiful tapestry which I carried around in my backpack. It was also heavy.