i thought i would write a little about my recent trip to india, especially after having gleaned a lot of info from other blog and forum posts in my research prior to the trip.
i went on this trip with 3 other friends. one of the friends is from bangalore, and he was with us for most of the trip. in fact, he was the main reason the rest of us even decided to travel to india. the rest of us had never been to india.
we were very lucky to have our indian friend with us for our first time. my friend put it nicely by saying that because our indian friend was "not panicking" (i.e., just acting normally) in situations that were new to us, we didn't feel any need to be anxious. having that anchor in such a new place enabled us to travel with more ease, with a lot less worry; and we definitely felt a difference when we parted ways for the last parts of our trip.
i imagine it would be pretty intimidating to visit india for the first time alone, which i know a lot of people on indiamike have done or want to do. even though i didn't go through that, i hope that i can still offer some useful advice for solo travelers.
anyway, here was our itinerary:
travel dates were jan 9, 2013 to jan 23, 2013. our indian friend was with us for bangalore through sikkim.
everything you've heard about the water is probably true. i say "probably" because none of us got sick. to ask for bottled water, we simply asked for "bisleri", which is a brand of bottled drinking water (it's akin to asking for kleenex, i suppose). have no qualms about asking for it, or even asking whether ice has been made from it. you won't always get bisleri-branded water; sometimes it will be aquafina, or something else. check that the bottle is sealed, and that the bottom of the bottle hasn't been punctured and resealed. our indian friend said to also look for the ISI logo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ISI_mark). it's probably also wise to ask to open the bottle yourself - sometimes the waiter will open the bottle for you upon bringing it to your table.
i'd read that bottled water should be used when brushing teeth, and that the mouth and nose should be closed during showers. i did this for only the first half of the trip. then again, we only ever stayed at hotels that were pretty decent or better.
all of our hotels had western-style toilets; however, not all of them had shower stalls or bathtubs. instead, the whole bathroom itself serves as the shower stall. there is simply a drain in one corner of the room.
depending on the niceness of the hotel, you will usually have hot water. at our hotel in agra (raj mahal hotel), i had to ask them to turn on the hot water. does no one shower at night over there? geesh. anyway, it took about 25 minutes before i had hot water. at our friend's place in bangalore, there is a water heater in the upper corner of the bathroom that must be turned on; so if you see a heater-like contraption in a bathroom, you should probably make sure it's on if you want hot water.
all this talk about bathrooms reminded me of an observation i had about interior design. i usually felt cold and isolated in bathrooms, even in other living spaces. there's usually a lot of hard, dark, flat surfaces, because i guess they like using marble/granite for flooring and walls. you'll rarely feel cozy or even comfortable in such bathrooms. more often than not, you'll feel like you're showering in like a gym shower or something, where you're the only person there. maybe i'm crazy, but that's how i felt. one bathroom in particular freaked me out a little. it was at umaid mahal in jaipur. awesome hotel, freaky bathroom. black granite (or similar) walls and floors, dim lighting, exposed fan running right next to your head... it wasn't pleasant. all i needed was for the power to go out (not an uncommon occurrence), and i'd think i was getting abducted by aliens or some shit. plenty of hot water, though. anyway...
we used travisa outsourcing. it was more complicated than we thought it'd be, and we wished we had started sooner. thankfully it all went OK, but the lesson is to start early, at least a month in advance. follow the instructions on their website EXACTLY. make sure you take off your glasses for your passport photo. make sure your passport doesn't expire for at least over 6 months after your date of travel. etc etc. if you're going to sikkim like we did, make sure you indicate this on your application (they ask on the application). we did not do this, but by some stupid crazy luck, we were still able to get a permit at rangpo. basically the guy who was able to issue permits happened to be there because of some parade that was happening that evening. it's highly unlikely you'll be that lucky.
after reading the internets, i learned that you can get sim cards from vodaphone. you will need a passport photo. i believe availability changes on an ongoing basis, so check out this article on indiamike: http://www.indiamike.com/india-articles/buying-a-prepaid-sim-card-in-ind... data reception was terrible, and it seemed that going from one region of india to another incurred roaming. overall, the sim card experience was not good, albeit useful at times.
stuff to bring:
bring a guidebook or two. we used two different ones (PDFs on our kindles or cell phones). they helped us a lot for finding hotels and restaurants (a couple that come to mind right away are britto's restaurant on baga beach in old goa; and umaid mahal hotel in jaipur); and they provided info on various places we visited (e.g., various cathedrals in old goa). it's hard to get internet, so you'll have to do what tourists did when the internet didn't exist, and use a guidebook.
power outtages are somewhat common. bring a travel surge protector rated for 220V. another indian friend let us borrow his, and it proved to be super useful for us, especially since there was usually not enough outlets, and since we didn't want to have to buy a bunch of adapters.
depending on where you're going, you may encounter a bathroom that doesn't have toilet paper, like i did in the kolkata airport. or maybe you'll accidentally step in some dog shit; or step barefooted onto a toothpick at a beach in goa; or simply feel like you want to clean your hands. wet wipes are awesome for all these things and more, and they're very compact and easy to carry in your backpack or whatever.
i'm sure there's more stuff, but i'll continue later. i hope.