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How to Make it in India: Everything you Need to Plan, Pack and Prepare

December 16th 2011

[Here’s an excerpt of the email I sent my sister and best friend to get them ready for their upcoming India visit.]

“In terms of packing, I figured you’d both want to know what to bring. Here are my suggestions:

You really do have to dress conservatively almost everywhere here in India, except Goa. That means pants or a long skirt—no shorts. Seriously guyss, no shorts. I wear tank tops when it’s super hot, but I always carry a scarf to cover my shoulders. My basic uniform every day is a pair of colorful loose cotton pants and a white t-shirt.

The north gets chilly at night and the air con trains reach Arctic temperatures. I have an American Apparel zip-up and a North Face fleece that I wear a lot more than I care to admit.

In terms of footwear, I try and wear close toe shoes up in the north. There’s shit everywhere, literally. Dog, cow, elephant…sometimes human. Also, there’s a lot of walking and the roads are mostly unpaved. I have a pair of slip on sneaks and a pair of straight up running sneakers that I also wear more than I care to admit. I also have flip flops and a pair of sandals for nicer dinners.

In terms of what else I packed: I have 2 short dresses and a pair of shorts for Goa (and wherever I go after India), one long dress and three pairs of leggings. A few tanks and tees, 2 long sleeve shirts and one bikini plus the aforementioned fleece, cotton pants, shoes, zip-up sweatshirt and scarf.

Leave room in your suitcase, there’s tons to buy—tie dye bikinis, sick jewelry, leather sandals…

As far as extras go: You need a plug converter and if you’re bringing a blowdryer (which you definitely don’t need), an electrical converter as well. Bring books for the long train/bus journeys (Shantaram!). Get a Cipro prescription, pack Pepto…chances are your stomach will bother you at least once. Also, Deet is amazing for the mosquitos.

You also need one of those long wire locks for the overnight trains (I met a few people who had their backpacks stolen while they slept).

And, lastly—a good camera!!

Also, a few things to prepare you on:

In the big cities it’s crazy, loud, busy, dirty, poor, polluted…everywhere you go there’s honking, barefoot children, people asking for money, rickshaw drivers trying to pick you up, local men trying to pick you up. It can be intense and overwhelming at first.

A lot of people—especially in the smaller villages—speak very little English, if any.

You can negotiate with everyone: Shopkeepers, rickshaw drivers, hostels. Never agree on the first price you’re given.

People will stare at you and take pictures of you—sometimes sneakily, sometimes they’ll ask you to pose with them. (I’m definitely on more than one facebook page with the caption “my American girlfriend”…)

There are cows EVERYWHERE. They’re considered holy and so they literally just roam the roads like they own the place.

Most restaurants in the north are vegetarian…NOWHERE serves beef (see above about holy cows), not even McDondalds. PS, if you do end up eating at McDonalds (#guilty), the McFlurrys here are especially amazing.

If a menu looks unappealing and you don’t know what to order, go for rice and dhal, which is just basically lentils cooked with some spices and herbs. It’s delicious and easy to digest.

To book buses, planes and trains (always good to do it ahead of time), I like cleartrip.com and makemytrip.com.

Ten minutes in Indian time really means one hour. “Not very spicy” equals eye-watering. I still haven’t figured out exactly what the head bobble means, but I’ll keep you posted.

Pack hand sanitizers. Yes, plural.

I think it’s nice to always know how to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in the language of the country you’re visiting. ‘Kripaya’ and ‘Dhanyavad’, respectively.

Beware of ulterior motives: Cab drivers will ignore the address you give them and take you to hotels where they get commission instead. Most street kids carry starving babies with them in order to get more money—the money usually goes to a pimp, Slumdog Millionaire style. There’s fake silver, fake gemstones, fake pashminas. Try and remember that it’s not malicious or malintentioned, it’s a way of making a living for people who have not had it easy.

You will get groped. You’ll chalk it up to being in a crowded place at first but there is no place packed enough to warrant a full-on butt squeeze.

Ultimately, the same people that try and cheat you, swindle you and grope you will be the people who will help you push through a crowded train to make your stop, who will share their dinner and snacks with you on the bus and introduce you to their families. They’ll teach you Hindi and offer you chai when you look tired. It’s this very dichotomy that makes India one of the most wonderfully crazy places on earth.

There will be moments when it’s not for you. You will eat food that is so spicy you think you’ll never be able to taste again. The sound of chanting and dogs barking will keep you up all night and your throat will burn from the overwhelming pollution. You’ll realize drip drying is the norm and forts and monuments all start to look the same after a while….but…..

If you do India right, you won’t ever want to leave. I’ve danced in the slums, ridden the train at rush hour with my head and half my body out an open door, motorbiked through remote villages, attended weddings, spent a night sleeping on sand dunes in the Rajasthani desert and stayed in a hut on the beach in Goa. I blast Bollywood soundtracks and eat street food and my resume now lists “working knowledge” of Hindi. The resume that I will be sending out all over India so I can stay here permanently.

I kid. Kind of.

SEE YOU IN INDIA!!! Can’t wait! xx”

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