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 😦 ) 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!

Sunny Nights in Alaska Part 1: Juneau and McCarthy

Juneau

My first glimpse of Alaska was through the airplane window as we touched down in Juneau, just in time for the 10:30pm sunset. I had expected and looked forward to these late night sunsets and the feeling of basking in sun for a majority of the day, but I didn’t realize how jarring it would be to see the sun peaking out in the dead of night. Alaska was peeking her eye at me, daring more than welcoming the weary traveler to explore.

Our first activity was a guided eight-hour hike to Mendenhall Glacier, with Above & Beyond Alaska. They picked us up at our hotel near the airport and drove us straight to the trailhead, where we had a short orientation and gear-up session. We had brought our own backpacks and jackets but our two tour guides advised that it would be a muddy day with a good amount of gear, so we opted to switch to their provided hiking backpacks and windbreakers. Inside each person’s backpack was a helmet, crampons, hiking poles, some intimidating ropey-looking climbing gear, and a bag of snacks! Yay snacks. 

Our group was quite large and while most of us were fairly young, there was also a mom and her ten-year-old daughter. There were some gaps as we hiked along the trail but our guides were attentive in making sure there was one in the front and one in the back to make sure the group stayed together. It was about four miles of hiking through the woods and moraines to get to the actual ice. While it was beautiful and lush, the mosquitos and flies were also enjoying the warm weather. Bring bugspray! Being the totally prepared and savvy hiker that I am, I forgot mine in my luggage. Luckily our guides had some on hand but the general rule I learned on this first activity was to just always have bugspray on my person at all times. 

Cheesin’ in front of Mendenhall Glacier

After the beautiful buggy hike we came upon the grandeur that is Mendenhall Glacier. It’s big, it’s beautiful, it’s blue, and it’s receding at faster rates every year. There are sign posts every few hundred meters to mark the year in which the glacier had been in that exact same spot. Sadly but not surprisingly the sign posts drew closer as the years crept towards the present. 

We were very excited to explore some ice caves but unfortunately due to the extremely hot weather, there were none accessible enough that the guides felt comfortable bringing tourists to. This was a big disappointment but it was just another reminder that 1) Nature is not a theme park and if it were, one must get in line with the expectation and acceptance that the ride may or may not be functioning that day, and 2) the earth is dying at a rapid rate at the hands of capitalist industrialization and tourists not being able to see some ice caves is but a minor inconvenience in the grand tragedy that is human-influenced climate change. Although to be fair, someone in my group was really looking forward to the ice caves and had to rearrange his plans due to their inaccessibility (more on this later….)

Despite this minor disappointment, we had a great time on top of the ice. Our scary climbing gear and helmets were mostly safety precautions in the event that anyone slipped and needed help getting back up, and also set up for some really cool photo ops:

Definitely not peeing my pants here

I had just finished Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which takes place on a planet called winter and in which the main character goes on a trek across hundreds of miles of glaciers and icefields. Having read this right before the trip was incredibly meta, as I gazed upon that gigantic block of blue and blinding white and wondered at its cold beauty and indifference to my puny human life. 

Anywho, besides the day-long hike, we also wandered around downtown Juneau and went back to Mendenhall Visitor Center to check out Nugget Falls. A word of advice on this: when calling for a taxi, ask before booking if you will need to purchase the Glacier Pass from the driver. Our first driver claimed this was a mandatory $25 per person that we would have to pay in the taxi prior to entering the visitor center, otherwise he would have to drop us off two miles outside. We called another taxi company and they said that was some baloney–they dropped us off about 10 minutes outside of the visitor center. 

From Mendenhall Visitor Center it was an easy 1-mile walk  to Nugget Falls. The waterfall came upon a small beach from which we had a beautiful view of the glacier from across the lake. There was an adorable dog and baby playing in the water and Ratik, Jennylee, and I skipped some rocks. It was a serene, yet sobering place because while the glacier, lake, and waterfall were breathtaking, one could not enjoy the view without worrying about its rapid decline, and whether it will even be here for our grandchildren to enjoy.

The Last Frontier Friends! In front of Mendenhall Glacier and Nugget Falls

And on that chipper note, we headed back to Juneau airport and flew to Anchorage. 

Anchorage is a huge city, especially compared to Juneau. We didn’t do much here except sleep in between driving to our other destinations and walk around the shops downtown, but it was a relief of convenience with big supermarkets and gas stations galore to fill up on roadtrip snacks before we headed to each destination.

McCarthy

Our first destination was about a 7-hour drive from Anchorage, to the remote town of McCarthy. The last leg of the road from Anchorage to McCarthy is an unpaved, dirt road on which one drives for a few hours, eyes peeled for sharp rocks or ancient nails leftover from retired train tracks that crept along the road. If you decide to drive around Alaska, I highly recommend renting high-clearance and 4-wheel drive. It can be a little more expensive and not as environmentally friendly as a cute Prius, but you will thank yourself when you make it through a winding dirt road with no amenities leading into a town in the middle of the wild, Final Frontier.

I have a friend, Matt, who had grown up here and I remember him once telling me that his hometown didn’t have internet or phone lines until 2008. I never really understood this until we stayed in John Adams’s (yes that’s his real name) lovely bed and breakfast on the edge of town. The property resembles a summer camp with detached cabins of varying room sizes and each with their own bathrooms, and a common breakfast cabin with a full kitchen. Despite the heat, our cabin was quite comfortable and John even upgraded us to a 2-bedroom instead of a 2-bed single room. Breakfast was the star of the show, featuring regular Costco comforts like oatmeal, hard-boiled eggs, cereal, milk, and fresh fruit, as well as homemade banana bread that John’s wife had just made the day previous. One thing I would like to note about this place is to be ready to lug your stuff from the front parking lot to your cabin. There is a platform connecting them that makes it easy for rolling luggage, but you will still have to pull them through a short dirt patch to get to the platform. It’s not backpacking up Denali, but it’s good to know ahead of time, especially if you are a crazy overpacker and have 90 pounds of just-in-case underwear and Walmart-sized hair products.

Getting into the actual town of McCarthy is easy, but it does take a bit of planning. There is a footbridge that goes over the river, before which is a parking lot ($10 a day). If you want to opt out on paying, you could park about a half-mile before that parking lot at a small visitor center and walk across the bridge. From the footbridge you could either walk a mile into town or wait for the shuttle. 

There are things I should note about getting into McCarthy:

1) The shuttle is not so much a shuttle, rather a large van with a cracked windshield, driven by one of the locals. They will warn you about bumpy parts on the road (and there are many) and are completely nice and accommodating, but don’t expect an air-conditioned bus where you can put your feet up and relax before and/or after your glacier hike. Most likely you will be cramped amongst sweaty bodies and backpacks, consciously grooving your body against the movements of the van so as not to smash your head into the window/your neighbor/their muddy hiking poles poking out of their backpacks. That being said, cracked windshields and muddy hiking poles mean adventure, and that’s what you’re here for! Here’s the website with times and pricing. 

2) The walk from the footbridge into McCarthy is short but beautiful, passing through a swimming hole and different spots along the river for skipping rocks or dipping your feet for a while. It’s quite dusty, but at this point in your Alaska trip I trust that you’re wearing clothes that you don’t mind dirtying up a bit. 

This area is part of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the country’s largest national park and home to a large historic mine town and Kennicott glacier. We rode the shuttle from McCarthy’s town center to the visitor center in front of the mine town; from there visitors can explore the abandoned buildings (which still hold the mining and processing equipment) and hike a 4-mile round trip to Root Glacier. 

Kennicott Mining Town
Cheesin’ in front of Root Glacier
Crevice Hole Thing on Root Glacier (Yes that is the scientific term)

Ratik, Jennylee, and I brought our own crampons and hiking poles so we opted to hike this on our own (props to our fearless leader Ratik for thinking of buying our own gear and avoiding inflated tourist prices to rent them). The hike itself to the mouth of the glacier was fairly easy, although the very end does involve some rocky slopes. We spent about a few hours here, exploring the icy surface. The surface of the glacier extends for miles towards the mountains; I think this was the best place to really understand the physical enormity of glaciers and how they really are rivers of ice. 

Jennylee, Robert, and I hanging out in their underground ice box, y’know, like everyone has

On our way out of McCarthy we stopped by my friend’s family cabins at Currant Ridge. Matt is currently living the dream in Hamburg, Germany, but we did get to meet his brother, Robert, and hang out while our fearless leader figured out our lodging for the night (we had planned on driving to a remote town called Whittier but their tunnel would have been inaccessible at our late ETA). Robert was a great temporary host and gave us a tour of their house and the cabins on the property. He had just come in from a hike to some ice caves, and we all bonded over fantasy novels and actuary science, which he’s studying in school. Thanks again for the water and the tour, Robert, and good luck with school!

McCarthy was definitely one of my favorite places in Alaska, not only because of the remote, wild beauty that made me feel like Bear Grylls, awesome glacier hike, and fascinating mining town, but because of the relaxed chill and nonchalant hospitality I saw in the people who lived there. Matt is an incredibly cool dude but he’s also genuine and kind, and now that I’ve explored his hometown I can see why and how he’s turned out that way. I may be overromanticizing my vacation because I’m writing this whilst eating an overpriced salad in my cubicle in the middle of the Financial District, but it seems like most of the Alaskans I’ve met are exceedingly chill and are always up for adventure and friends. 

I’m currently working on remembering and journaling the rest of my trip, so stay tuned for more cheesy and overly sentimental recollections of the Last Frontier! 

 

Snapshots of Big Sur

Processed with VSCO with  preset

The first glimpse of it is almost shocking. After miles of winding greenery and fruit stands, the highway begins twisting around hills and hugging the coast. At first, the water is subtle. It peeks between hills and trees and you roll down the window to see if you could smell the sea. The subtle hint of salt teases your nostrils, just as the small glimpses of water do. The car makes a final turn around a hill and suddenly it’s a blanket of brilliant blue to your right. From the passenger seat, you stick your right hand out the window and move it up and down through the wind, feeling the waves of the ocean riding with you.

Your first weekend getaway with him was in Big Sur. You made up a story about sleeping over at Abby’s and packed your backpack and rode off in his rickety Honda Civic. The awkward first weeks of dating had passed, and you were wondering where this relationship would take you. This first place was paradise.

In the Julia Pfeiffer State Park, there is a small trail that starts at the edge of the road and begins taking you down through a short tunnel and then onto the side of the cliff. The ocean is larger here than it was from your window, up on the road. You are suddenly reminded of how small you are, how the tiny creature that you are is standing on the edge of the continent, staring into a sea that eventually grows into others, together blanketing the earth. The trail leads you to a viewing platform. Down below, on the other side of the curved edge of the cliff is a small beach with the McWay Falls. The water comes down from crevices on the mountain and hits a pool in the sand, less than a mile away from the waves coming in and out.

He parked the Civic on the side of the road and you both slept in the back, drunk with supermarket whiskey. Every so often a car would pass by, shining through the windows and waking you up. Sometimes you would forget sleep and look up through the windows. He had chosen a spot under a mass of trees, but in between the branches you could see the stars, so plentiful in comparison with the city sky under which you grew up. You imagined how the ocean must look, mirroring those small, twinkling lights, the waves crashing against the cliffs and lapping at beaches now abandoned for the night.

You woke up in the early morning as the sun was still peeking in the horizon. The stars that had shown through the trees were gone, but you saw the premature rays of daylight sparkling in the dew. Your phone blinked with unread messages and missed calls from Mom. She had checked with Abby and found that you weren’t there. He drove to a gas station where you had service and you called, explaining where you were and who you were with. It was the first time she’s ever heard about any boy. There was a feeling of regret, of shame for lying and getting caught. But as much as you felt sorry for sneaking out and lying, you couldn’t help that feeling of satisfaction. Satisfaction that your overdue teenage rebellion had brought you to an Eden, just hours away from home.

The next time you see Big Sur, it is after you two had moved in together. The rickety Civic has long since retired, and you drive in your shared white Honda Fit. Night time hasalready fallen by the time you set out from home, so the winding hills stood dark and glaring against the moonlit sky. The car twists and turns around the dark sentinels. Where small scenes of brilliant blue had shone in between turns and trees, you see glimpses darker than the sky. Finally, the familiar turn comes up. The car curves around the final hill and you are surrounded by black ocean. It is violent this night, sending wave upon wave against the cliff side. But every so often it subsides and the water is still for a few moments. And it is just as you imagined that first night: the stars twinkle in the still water, shining from above and below you. You open the window and stick out your hand, letting it ride in the chilly nighttime wind.

Processed with VSCO with  preset