Travelling In India | The Basics
Colour, people, energy, exhaustion, beauty, religion, cows, flowers, rubbish… Just a few of the words that spring to mind when I remember snapshots of Rajasthan. India is a country of contrasts in the purest sense, and travelling in it brings a wealth of highs and lows like nowhere else. With over 1.2 billion people, India has the second largest population in the world and when you’re in the mix of its crowded streets, vivid markets and frenetic villages, you can literally feel the weight of its people. Nowhere else will you see so many bright and beautiful colours on a daily basis; embroidered saris, flowers for the temple, painted trucks and tractors, and decorated camels. Nowhere else will you see cows and goats grazing in the middle of the motorway. Nowhere else will you find 5 star hotels next to open sewers and slums. Nowhere else will you see women riding side saddle on the back of scooters so gracefully while a barrage of car horns surround them. Nowhere else will you feel such a sense of magic and history from dawn to dusk.
From fast-paced cities to secluded desert camps, we covered 6 places in 13 days which involved a lot of long drives but an incredible bite-sized experience of a unique country. While I work through our thousands of photos to share with you guys, I thought I’d note down a few of things we learnt while exploring.
- Pack for all climates. The evenings and mornings were definitely on the chilly side, especially when you head further north towards Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. I definitely didn’t take enough jumpers and longed for a pair of jeans and a warm jacket at times, while the days were always sunny and warm. Remember Rajasthan has a desert climate so the temperature really drops throughout the winter.
- Cover up. In respect for local culture (and to avoid disapproving stares or the wrong kind of male attention), cover shoulders and down to calves. At this time of year, the heat isn’t oppressive, so long sleeves and light trousers were my go-to.
- Given the amount of time we were there, and places we wanted to cover, hiring a driver was our only option. We used V Care Tours which cost around £400 for 12 days. This covers the drivers accommodation while you’re staying at hotels too. We became experts at sleeping in the car and did a few 6 A.M starts in order to maximise our time in each destination. Download plenty of podcasts and audiobooks for the long journeys and settle in. If we had more time, I really wanted to do a proper Indian train journey but it just wasn’t feasible on this occasion sadly.
- Shop responsibly and compassionately. Haggling is the done thing (they say go down to a third of what they originally propose) so barter in a friendly, easy way to get good deals and avoid stores at the entrances to tourist-hotspots like forts and palaces. While getting a fair price is important, I feel like not being an asshole is important too. If you find yourself arguing over a £1 (100 rupees) for something beautiful that you want, take a moment to remember the exchange rate and what it means to the vendor vs what it means to you. Likewise, I tried to shop at women’s collectives and ethical stores where possible. We went into some warehouse-style shops where everything was packaged in plastic and stacked up to the ceiling, and you can’t help but wonder where the people are that made it all. I loved Fiona Caulfield’s book ‘Love Jaipur, Rajasthan‘ for just about everything, but especially for highlighting great places to shop that you can trust. It’s good to have a firm idea of where you want to go and do too, as many drivers, no matter how well-regarded the company you book with, will encourage you to sample a local shop or restaurant because they have a deal in place that will secure them a commission if you shop or eat there. We politely went to a few of these suggested shops, but found prices massively inflated and quality lacking so tried to tactfully stick to our guns for the most part.
- The infamous ‘Delhi belly’ is unpredictable but definitely unpleasant. To avoid getting ill, follow the basics… Eat in busy, recommended restaurants, carry and use hand sanitiser (I never do this normally, but it’s a good habit to get into when travelling) and stick strictly to bottled water (for brushing teeth too). Some of my friends recommended going veggie too which I kind of did and I still managed to get a nasty but swift bout of it while Jamie ate everything and anything and was fine! Take a course of probiotics before you go to give your body a head start and pack plenty of medicine just in case. My friend Xochi is a naturopath and all-round babe, and recommended grapefruit seed extract for any really persistent stomach upsets and viruses too.
- If you’re like me, you’ll want to know more and more about India as you’re exploring it. Add some of these to your reading list to work through as you’re experiencing it first hand.
The White Tiger, Arvind Adiga
The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts
A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
- There are many ways to do India, from the most basic hostels to palace-like ones that cost upwards of £600 a night. For the most part, we fell somewhere in the middle, opting for boutique boltholes that offered more than just a bed for the night. From the loveliest family-run guesthouse in Jaipur to a design-hotel with a pool in Jodhpur, we found having somewhere welcoming, clean and comfortable to go back to at the end of the day a real must. When you’re travelling for months you can afford the odd miss, but when everyday counts on a holiday, it’s worth shelling out on not-so-humble abodes in Rajasthan if your budget allows.
- We organised our own itinerary and didn’t hire a guide anywhere, which suited us perfectly. Research the key sites of cities to do (or not do as the case may be), and just hire an audio guide at palaces and forts. This way you have more freedom to wander, explore and veer off the tourist track. Even if you have a driver like we did, make sure you take the time to walk around and see places on foot – don’t be those people that see India through a car window. While you want to make the most of your driver, it’s fun to rely on tuktuks around towns or just set out on foot.
- I left my bulky Canon 5D at home and we opted for two lightweight Olympus cameras with a couple a different lenses instead. I had the Olympus Pen and Jamie took the Olympus OM with 17 mm, 70 mm and 14-42 mm lenses between us. It was the best decision as you want something light, quick and easy for snapping scenes in motion whether on foot or in the back of a rickshaw. I’d really recommend side-stepping the bulky SLRs somewhere like India, so you can shoot markets and people scenes quickly and with minimal fuss.
More from India very soon….
Ph. by myself and James Wright using the Olympus OM and Olympus Pen