Tips for Traveling in India: Staying Safe, Eatin’ Good, and Buying Shawls

Toorji Ka Jhalra in Jodhpur, where villagers used to come and fetch water. The zigzag stair pattern was designed to maximize the number of people who could come down to the water at a time.

Use mineral or boiled/filtered water for drinking and brushing your teeth. We tried (and admittedly) failed to minimize our plastic bottle use, but were not able get around this because we were mostly on long-haul drives and didn’t have time or space to filter/boil water. I brought my Lifestraw but unfortunately it wasn’t really that efficient for two people or when you’re constantly on the go and just want a swig of water without holding too many items.

When we were staying with my partner’s family, they had a large vessel of boiled water that we poured into travel bottles when leaving for the day. I suggest asking for something similar (vessel and large cooking pot + stove) if you’re staying at an Airbnb or apartment, and bringing a large bottle when you’re out and about for the day.

For my our next trip, I’ll be purchasing Lifestraw bottles for my partner and me so we don’t have to deal with this issue.

20191227_134053 (2).jpg

Look up pictures of the local people and city culture of where you’re traveling and pack/dress accordingly. It’s no secret that female travelers are encouraged to dress modestly when traveling in India. If you’re going to places like Goa or Mumbai, the local culture tends to be more lax about clothing. But in other states and cities, it’s in the traveler’s best interest to follow local customs when it comes to dressing. I think the best practice would be to look up the place ahead of time so you have a good idea of what people wear there.

We were traveling in Calcutta and Rajasthan, both places in which the local culture tends to be more conservative. It was easy for me to dress modestly because it was literally winter, but if you’re struggling with the heat I recommend wearing light, breathable layers. Bring or buy a thin shawl to drape around your shoulders/cover your chest, and wear either longer skirts or loose-fitting pants.

I know, I know, the female body was not created for the male gaze and in a perfect world we could dress however we want and not give two fucks about what people think. But the fact of the matter is that there are certain customs in place when visiting other cultures, and in my opinion it’s worth making small, temporary adjustments to my behavior and habits in order to have a smooth experience when traveling in another country. Destabilizing the patriarchy is no doubt one of my main goals in life, but I’d rather not have to confront/lecture/fight people while I’m on vacation because they’re staring at my shoulders or chest.
That being said, I bought a shit-ton of shawls and needed to wear them anyway.

Right outside of our hotel door! We definitely had a royal experience.

Pay the few extra dollars for hotels and Airbnbs with good reviews. You want to be able to trust that you’re in a safe place with clean facilities, so think of the extra money you’re paying as a small premium for peace of mind. Most places in India are fairly cheap (if you’re not staying at the Taj) so you won’t have to worry about going broke for safe and clean accomodation. The most expensive hotel we stayed in was Nachana Haveli, owned by Jaisalmer’s royal family, and it was about $100 per night.

This is critical for women traveling alone. There are so many horror stories online about shady hotels and guest rooms, especially with female travelers. I know you are resilient and strong and #notallmen and I’m sure the majority of the people you encounter in India are well-meaning, but I don’t think the $20 you’ll probably save is worth the risk, even it has a small chance of happening.

If you’re on a tight budget, I highly recommend either traveling with friends or meeting other travelers and staying in hostels or apartments with them. I’m in a group on Facebook of female travelers where we post about past and future travels, and it’s a great place to look for hostel/adventure buddies!

Local sweet shop in Calcutta – the mishti doi, rasgullas, and cham chams are a must try!

When it comes to food: err on the side of caution and follow the white people. I know most travel blogs say to go where the locals go, and in most cases this is true. But in places like India, food preparation can make or break your trip. Go to places where you find a mix of locals and tourists. If you want to be extra safe, follow middle-aged tourists or traveling families (and yes, white people). They tend to be where the food is safe while still tasty, because the food preparation tends to use filtered water and will generally have higher standards. This is not to say that small restaurants or street food stands are all unhygienic. I’m sure that the vendors and cooks in these places follow health and sanitation standards, but the fact of the matter is that the local people who eat there have been doing so for a long time and have built immunity. Their stomachs can handle it.

Okay, okay, you are a wanderlusting travel nomad with an iron stomach and 2 months to kill in India. You want to eat like the locals do and experience everything that India has to offer you, including those enticing chaat stands on the corner of the street.

My biggest piece of advice would be to ease yourself into local cuisine: don’t go to the pani puri stand on your first day and chug the tamarind water. Instead, find places that are highly reviewed on TripAdvisor and Zomato by both locals and tourists, and make sure everything you eat is freshly made and hot.

In the event that Delhi belly does catch you, you can buy Imodium at most pharmacy or chemist shops for dirt cheap (15 rupees/$0.21 per tablet). Make sure you stock up for the rest of your trip, and it doesn’t hurt to get some electrolyte packets too (no Gatorade in India!!)

Personally, I know that I have a strong stomach. I usually love eating street food because it’s a cheap way to experience local cuisine. But India is a lot cheaper than places like Spain and Germany, and you can go to higher-end restaurants that are still affordable and will offer you local flavors and spices without the risk of local bacteria.

Stuffing our faces (with a plastic water bottle šŸ˜¦ ) at Ambrai Restaurant

One of the best meals we had was at Ambrai Restaurant in Udaipur. It was on the fancier side with fancier prices than the local dhabas, but we sat at a table overlooking the water, ate the best ghatta I’ve ever had in my life, and were able to explore the beautiful haveli to which the restaurant belonged. We paid about $30 for a meal for two, after which we felt stuffed, satisfied, and sleepy (no drugs, just lots of carbs and fat). Was it more than we would have paid elsewhere? Yeah, of course. Would we have gotten quality food in cheaper places? No doubt. Do I regret it? Nope, again we decided not to risk the time it would take to get over upset stomach to save that money. If we were staying longer in each city and had a tighter budget, I might have reconsidered our dining options. But we only had 2-3 days in each place and wanted to make sure that we maximized our time doing activities and exploring.

Typical Rajasthani tourist shop with textiles galore!

HAGGLE! If you’re even remotely foreign or out-of-town, vendors will hike up their prices. My general rule is to haggle for 30-50% of what they initially say. If they’re ok with it, cool! If not, we can still settle for about 75% of their original asking price. The best trick is to look up what you want to buy or book beforehand and see what the general pricing should be. And when buying medicine/drinks/toiletries from local shops, make sure to check the printed maximum retail price (MRP) on the back to make sure you’re not being ripped off.

These were the usual prices I paid for different things and experiences:

    • Shawls: 150 rupees for cheap, thinner material. Although these aren’t the best quality they make for cute souvenirs (I may have gone crazy on these.)
    • Real Kashmiri wool shawls generally go for 2000-5000 rupees, depending on quality and size. You want to be careful with these: there are infinitely many vendors who hawk fake cashmere and will charge you crazy “genuine” prices.
      • Real kashmiri shawls have a distinct texture with small hairs. They’re generally not as silky or elastic as fake cashmere, but will still be smooth and soft to the touch.
    • Junk Jewelry:
      • bangle sets: 150-300 rupees/$2-4 for sets of 4, depending on the quality, thickness, intricacy of the design
      • earrings: 60-150 rupees
    • Chapals/Sandals: 200 rupees/~$3 when purchased at a street stand. We looked in shops and saw the same style/quality going for 400-500, so either steer clear of these vendors or up your haggling game!
    • Chai: 50 rupees/$0.70-1 at restaurants and cafes (are usually pre-sweetened, so make sure to ask for separate sugar if you want it on the side)
    • Hotels: $15-100, depending on the location, amenities, and popularity. Traveling around Rajasthan, we mostly stayed in havelis (small palaces and villas owned by nobility during the Raj) that offered breakfast and had parking for our rental car. Our cheapest hotel was in a town called Bundi, for a whopping $15
      • Note: We only stayed in Bundi as a rest stop when we drove from Ranthambore to Udaipur, so we were surprised to see that it was a bustling tourist town! Before leaving in the morning we walked up to the Fort and Palace; I recommend staying here for at least a day for a less-crowded but still beautiful fort experience (insert Bundi Fort pics)
    • Entry Tickets for Museums/Palaces/Forts: 50-100/$0.71-1.50 rupees for Indians, anywhere from 200-500 /$3-7rupees for foreigners. I was lucky because my partner has an Indian passport and I look sort of kind of like I’m from the northeastern states, so we were able to book all of our excursions at local entry prices. No tip here, just a matter of circumstance and ~love.

My last tip and something I was profoundly surprised and moved by was that most people are willing to go out of their way to help strangers, so when you need it, ask for help. We had to ask for directions, for help maneuvering our car through narrow, claustrophobic streets, for where to find Imodium (my food tips are from first-hand witness experience, OKAY), and all of the people we encountered gave advice and their helping hand without hesitation. Most of the people we encountered were genuinely helpful and also curious. They made sure we had the right directions but also sometimes asked us where we’re from, where we’re going, and how we liked India so far. I loved this most about the country, that in the midst of so many people and colors and foods and rickshaws and smells and cows and wallahs, I also got glimpses of kindness and hospitality through its chaos.

Ratik starring as a brown Lawrence of Arabia, gazing into the sandy horizon and contemplating the number of shawls I must have bought on this trip.
Kumbaa the tiger says to have fun and stay safe in India!

January Reads: Crime and Punishment and Thanos, Self-promoting Your Career, Crying on BART, and Educated

Happy February everyone!

I read four books this January: two physical books and two ebooks. My initial goal in the beginning of the year, as part of my Shopping Ban, was to read only the books that I already own. But lo and behold, I got a new San Francisco library card and went a bit crazy. Also, I seem to have joined the ebook bandwagon about 10 years late. I think I bug Ratik about 10 times a week exclaiming how amazingly far technology has come because I can highlight, take notes, and look up words from the comfort of my Kindle app. Grandma Dina is finally wrestlin’ those darn compooters.

The genres I read last month were a bit scattered, which I really enjoyed. It kept things interesting and also challenged me to flex my reading muscles because I had to switch how I analyzed and consumed text. I guess it’s like rotating your muscle groups when you work out so you make sure that 1) you’re less likely to get bored and thus more motivated to work out/read and 2) if you only did chest and back and only read melancholic Russian literature, you will end up top-heavy and melancholic.

Image result for how women rise"How Women Rise by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith

I read this book for work as part of our internal Women’s Network. I volunteered to co-organize a presentation this quarter on how to self-promote your career because I’m obviously hella qualified to do so, and my partner recommended this as one of our topics. Helgesen and Goldsmith are professional coaches who help people identify habits that may keep them from getting where they want to go. How Women Rise is a self-help and empowerment book because it identifies some habits that women specifically tend to hold on to, and gives tips on how to let go or transform these habits in order to advance.

The book is actually targeted to women around middle-management who are trying to move up into executive or upper-management positions, so I found that some of the tips may not apply to people who are starting out in the career. I did, however, find some tips quite helpful for anyone in any part of their career that I will highlight during our presentation:

  • Claiming your achievements and contributions
    • Many of us wait to be acknowledged by our peers and bosses about what we’ve accomplished or how we helped the team, but we can’t rely on others to do this. Women especially are taught to be humble and soft-spoken as virtues, and that highlighting our own achievements would be bragging or being arrogant. But in order to ensure that we are being recognized for our hard work and talent, we should be proactive in highlighting what we’ve done and what we do.
  • Leveraging relationships
    • This was a hard pill to swallow, because I’ve always been terrified of my friends and acquaintances thinking that I’m taking advantage of them for personal gain. But the fact of the matter is, everyone has skills or relationships or expertise that can be helpful for you, and the reverse is also the same. If you ask someone for help, that’s establishing a two-way relationship where you could return the favor father down the line.

I gave this book 3/5 stars, meaning that I didn’t find it life-changing or profound but I thought it did have really good and helpful tips. It also gave insight into learned behavior that is usually instilled in women and how to navigate away from it. IĀ  recommend this for anyone who feels stuck in the middle of a corporate job and wants to re-examine and evolve their habits and behaviors in order to move forward. Perhaps the protagonist in my next book could have used something like this…

Image result for crime and punishment arc classic"Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevksy

[Avengers and I guess Crime and Punishment spoilers for those of you who have heretofore lived under a rock and JUST NOW decided to join society]

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading this. It was heavy at times because hello it’s about a murder, but I found that it read like a psychological thriller and at times couldn’t put it down because I was so enthralled in the building anxiety and drama. The story follows Rodion Raskolnikov, a young and impoverished law student who turns to murder as a means of escaping his state in life. He kills and robs an old pawnbroker–as well as her sister, accidentally– and then spends the next few hundred pages being paranoid and anxious of being caught and dealing with his conscience (characterized by the overtly pious women in his life.) The plot takes place in St. Petersburg, Russia during the summer, where the stifling heat add to Rasky’s stifled conscience and growing claustrophobia and paranoia.

I gave this 3.75/5 stars because I really enjoyed the story and really diving into old Rasky’s mind. He has an interesting ideology in that men of great intelligence and original ideas are above the law, and that murder in the name of social progress is justified. This reminded me of my old friend Thanos from the Marvel Universe, who eliminated half of society for the good of the world. Whether these men (and they’re always men…) are right in their philosophies is another topic for another day, but I found a great difference in the two characters.

Where as ThanosĀ does have an original and progressive idea (addressing overpopulation and the damage its done on natural resources), Rasky doesn’t seem to have a clue. I read that Dostoevksy wrote this character as a caricature or criticism of utilitarianism, the idea that actions are justified if they’re for the overall betterment of society, and nihilism, the rejection of religious and moral principles because life in a practical sense is meaningless. Rasky definitely had nihilistic views in his disregard for human life, but I found it hard to believe his act of murder was utilitarian. Before the events of the novel, Rasky had published an essay in which he presented his ‘utilitarian’ ideas that some men, like Napoleon, cannot be judged by the law on the same level as other men of lesser importance and intelligence. I’m not going to debate whether utilitarianism is a morally or intellectually sound philosophy, but I found it hard to believe that Rasky had any sort of progressive ideas or plans. Sure, he talkedĀ about the good he was going to do once he had the money to finish law school and be a part of society. HeĀ talked about how some men are justified their actions because of their original ideas, but he never really had any original ideas except to murder (and then to justify it).

Rasky talked the talk, but did not walk the walk.Ā 

Another issue I had with the story was its depiction of women. This was not at all surprising, but I’m going to hold authors of the past just as accountable as I do modern and contemporary authors when writing about women. Rasky’s mother, his sister Dounia, and love interest Sonia were interesting characters on their own, but they were pretty flat and really only existed to move the plot and his character development along. On the other hand, we have characters like Ramuhizin and Porfiry who are dynamic and have ideas and motivations of their own. Why do they get to be so much more interesting, Fyodor?

Despite these issues, I’m glad I read this because it really made me think and chew over Rasky’s character and the different topics and ideologies that are brought up. If the main character were Thanos instead, and we had female characters like Gamora or Captain Marvel then this might have been a 5 star read.

Image result for there there tommy orange"There There by Tommy Orange

This book was everywhere last year and I regret not having read it until now. In short, it wrecked me.

The story is told through different perspectives, following the lives of Native Americans from Oakland, California as they navigate through turmoils and challenges of identity, addiction, abuse, gentrification, and overall disillusionment. Their paths converge as they all attend the Big Oakland Powwow, where chaos and trouble ensue.

I gave this book 4/5 because I was absolutely captured and moved by the characters’ stories and voices. They felt so real, in their struggles and flaws and relationships. For the characters who were dealing with addiction and identity, Orange had a way of depicting their wounds and struggles in a way that felt so visceral to the reader. The characters had real, believable flaws and they dealt (or didn’t deal) with them in real, believable ways.Ā 

Orange also talked about being a Native American in a way that is so important for us to read in a postcolonial (is it really though?) world, especially in a country that was built upon the institutionalized genocide of their people and culture. Mainstream media often portrays Native American culture as something of prehistoric or ancient times, rarely ever acknowledging that there are Native communities living and breathing and evolving.

One of the characters, Calvin, says that he “feels bad sometimes even saying I’m Native. I just feel like I’m from Oakland.” This is during an interview held by another character, Dene, who is holding open-ended interviews for Natives to tell their stories without prompting the subjects with questions or suggestions, so that “content directs vision.” This is what it felt like Orange was doing with his characters, letting their stories come to life without being tied to a specific theme. I think often when we see Native Americans in literature or movies, there’s usually a central theme that directs and ties down their stories. Either that, or they don’t even have stories to begin with and are limited to caricatures of their people and culture. The characters in There There don’t abide to a certain expectation of who they should be; instead they force the reader to see their stories and lives in all of their flaws, prayers, triumphs, and failures.

I was also incredibly impressed by the author’s grasp of language and pacing. As the characters’ paths draw into the Big Oakland Powwow, the chapters become shorter and more focused on action. It felt like watching a movie and seeing the characters from a bird’s eye view as they drew to the converging of their stories. Orange grew up in the Bay Area so he definitely had an advantage, but his use of Bay Area diction was so genuine that it felt like I was talking to people from my high school. They felt so familiar that I genuinely miss them now that the story is done.

Image result for educated tara westover"Educated by Tara Westover

Westover’s memoir follows her journey from living in isolation on her survivalist family’s farm in the mountains of Idaho to going to college and eventually graduating with a PhD from Cambridge and acknowledging the trauma and hurt that had been inflicted on her during her adolescence.

I rated this 3.5/5 stars; I would have rated it higher if not for some choices in editing that I thought could have been improved. That being said, I was absolutely mesmerized and inspired by Westover’s story and storytelling. What moved me the most was how honest and forgiving she is, while still unyielding about her writing and her voice. As she began to confront her family and the abuse and neglect inflicted upon her, they gaslighted her for succumbing to the devil and living in sin and telling lies. Westover was explicit in relaying her memories but was also transparent in giving disclaimers that they were disputed within her family. This reinforced her integrity as a memoirist and daughter/sister (even despite being excommunicated by most of her family) because she could have easily given her side. Instead, she acknowledged the voice of others that had hurt her.

Her honestly and compassion shines also in her relationship with Mormonism, which she studied as part of her dissertation. She found a balance between the blind, zealous faith of her childhood and disregarding the writings and beliefs as irrational and wrong; instead she examined the religion and ideologies as major contributions to history. As a writer and as someone who grew up in an extremely religious family, this was important for me to read because it gave an example of making peace with the pastĀ  and acknowledging beliefs respectfully while still staying firm in what I believe and don’t believe.

I really enjoyed the books I read last month and will continue varying the genres I’m reading. My reading this goal is to read 40 books, and to explore new genres and writers (with the help of the library because SHOPPING BAN!)

Have you read any of the books above and if so, what are your thoughts?

What are you currently reading? Do you have any reading goals this year?