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Untangling India on a budget

When preparing for a budget trip to India disregard, as far as possible, any clearly defined expectations. Nothing can prepare you for India if you come from a western or afro-western context.”

People will offer you or try and sell you ‘chai’ everywhere. Chai is simply the Hindi word for tea. Loose, ground tea leaves are boiled in a pot over a flame and milk is added as the tea boils. The tea is further spiced with masala and freshly crushed ginger and a copious amount of sugar is then added. Chai is sold on just about every corner in India, usually in miniature disposable cups, and it costs 10 Rupees (less than R2.00). Drinking chai is an Indian institution. You just do it.

The food in India is the most delicious food in the world. If you have been to India you’re welcome to dispute this, but if you haven’t, don’t even argue with me. I ‘went veggie[1]’ in India and I did not even think about meat once. The food is just so utterly flavoursome and well prepared that one does not miss eating meat. Additionally, Indians are very smart when it comes to making the most of plant proteins and so one doesn’t feel as though one is suddenly going to develop a nutritional deficiency disease. The other great thing about Indian food is that it is very cheap if you eat at local (usually dirty) joints. The bill for BOTH my wife and I sometimes totalled as little as R16 (£1)!

[1] I cheated and had one chicken curry as it was served to me in a home and one does not – indeed, one cannot – refuse what one is served by an Indian woman in her home. Coercion is too weak a word to describe how Indian women serve their food, force is a more appropriate adjective. I was not complaining; best chicken curry I ever did eat.

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Some advice for eating street food:

    • We didn’t get sick in over three weeks of eating at Indian street restaurants – it is not an irresponsible thing to do. Billions of people, literally billions, do it every day. However, do take a good supply of charcoal tablets – they sturdy up the stomach and may have been the reason we did not get sick at all.
    • Go vegetarian.
    • The water in India is usually what makes foreigners sick, not the food. Most very basic Indian street restaurants have water jugs on the table. Don’t drink from these; rather pay the standard 20 Rupees (R4) for a litre of bottled drinking water.

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India is filthy. It is the dirtiest place you might ever see. The pollution is devastating and littering is a common practice. As a result, everything feels dirty. Hand sanitizers are very helpful to pack in your hand luggage or day packs, as are little packets of wet wipes. Additionally, many places, even decent looking hotels, are not always clean. My wife and I took a flat sheet that was sewn on two sides to form a thin sleeping bag. We put these to use at the grubby joints.

This one is for the ladies. If you’re a white, black, or coloured woman, people (especially men) will stare at you…for shamelessly extended periods of time. This is true generally as there are not many women who look like you walking the streets of India! However, this particularly true if you have blonde or ginger/red hair. Brace yourself, this is something you need to be aware of and adapt to. Both men and woman will walk up to you in public spaces and will ask for photographs. Use your discretion as to whether or not to give your consent but my wife usually politely declined requests by men after consulting some locals for advice regarding this phenomenon. Wearing a headscarf in particularly busy or crowded places is a helpful practice if it’s not too hot.

Another unfortunate thing about India is that almost everyone sees foreigners as a walking dollar sign. Many foreigners have been made to unfairly part with their Rupees. This is particularly true of Auto Rickshaw (Tuk-Tuk) and taxi drivers who will try to charge you at least double for what they would usually charge a local. Thus, there are always two prices: normal prices and then a very indefinite, fluctuating tourist price which usually depends on the naivety or ignorance of the tourist. A good rule of thumb is to ask for a price and then immediately offer half of what you’re quoted and work from there. You get to know the general prices of things pretty quickly and you can ask locals for standard pricing. You’ll also have to adapt to the practice of bargaining, even if it doesn’t come naturally. If you’re travelling with a partner or group of friends appoint the best (ruthless) bargainer for the duration of your trip.

Some advice for using local transport:

  • Public transport is always cheapest. Local busses are absurdly cheap but, be warned, they are not for the faint of heart. However, if you’re anything like me and you desire an authentic local experience then use them. Some busses that my wife and I caught (journeys over 200kms) cost the equivalent of R12 each. Such busses are antiquated relics that somehow appear to never break down. They have simple, thinly padded flat seating and a place above your head to sling your backpack. They are often overloaded. These busses are not comfortable, they usually don’t have windows (instead, they have window holes but no glass panes – only steel bars) and they seem to stop every few kilometres. Such busses will go around blind corners at formidable speeds, it will appear as though you are about to have a head on collision, and yet, they hardly ever do! This is largely due to the drivers’ use of the hooter (horn) which they honk more often than not.
  • Insist on using the meter in auto rickshaws and taxi’s as it will always work out cheaper than some upfront agreed rate. The driver will usually try to avoid using the meter as he knows this too (it’s always a he).
  • Uber works well in Indian cities. UberX cars are usually pretty rubbish but they get you from A to B, often for half the price of a taxi or auto rickshaw. They are particularly helpful for airport runs. BUT, in cities like Delhi, a 30km trip to the airport can take 2 hours due to the heavily congested roads. Be sure to factor this in when planning airport trips and ask your hosts for advice on when to leave. In smaller cities or towns Uber is usually not available.
  • When using public transport in India you need to accept that a 100-200km trip can, and most often does, take up to 6 hours. The roads are usually narrow, windy and some haven’t been maintained, it would seem, since the Mughal emperors were in charge. With this in mind, if you need to travel 200-400kms by bus you’ll need the better part of a day or even an overnight bus.

 

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There is so much to say but I hope these basics will help you to untangle the great web of adventure that is India. I have tried to help with a realistic impression of India that will help you on your way – and I hope I have not come across as negative or cynical. It is certainly the most enigmatic place I have ever been; I still can’t properly articulate what it is like. Photographs don’t seem to do it justice and words fail. It was simply an incredible place to visit in the true sense of the word; incredible but amazing.

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George Robinson

George is a raw and wild adventureman. He’s married to Bianca, his travel buddy par excellence. He’s a South African who is especially grateful for the 1000s of kilometers of rugged, beautiful coastline. As a busy pastor on the North Coast of KZN, his favourite things to do to take a break involve the ocean: spearfishing, paddle-ski fishing and surfing. His passion for local and regional travel started as a student when he guided overland camping adventures to Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Though much of his adventures to date have mostly been in Africa and the East, his dream destinations are certainly the far-flung islands of the pacific where the sea turns purple-clean and the fish grow big! He enjoys engaging with local cultures and cuisines; cheap local street foods that don’t check one box on the health and safety register are the ultimate!

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