Thursday, July 14, 2016

Packing for India

Yes, I travelled more than 7,000 miles to get this picture.
Totally worth it.
When I traveled to India with A Fresh Chapter in March 2016, I frankly had no idea what I was getting into.

I'd never traveled internationally, let alone to a third world country with a bunch of strangers.  But despite my newbie status, I am happy to report I managed to pack like a champ (with a little help from some fab travel blogs) and there are very few "do-overs" items I would have packed differently. I am also happy to report the former "bunch of strangers" are now counted among my closest friends. (Life's funny that way isn't it?)

So, because I get asked this on a regular basis, I wanted to share with you just what made the international carry-on cut and what I probably should have kept at home - as well as introduce you to a few of the Fresh Chapter lovelies who mean so much to me.

If You are Headed to India, Don't Leave Home Without:

Baby Wipes - Trust me, you'll thank me for this one. There's a whole lotta sticky on the other side of the world - there's no reason you need to be.

Ear plugs - India is a noisy place. Best bring a pair of these if you want to catch some z's.

Hand sanitizer - I actually brought too much with me, which is much better than the other way around. A little goes a long way, but be sure to stow a bottle or two for your trip.

Extra Plastic baggies and space bags - Space saving bags are the world's greatest invention for people who purchase too many souvenirs while abroad. (Not that I would know of course.) Throw in a dozen with a few regular baggies for good measure.

Sunblock/bugspray - You can purchase these abroad but the ingredients aren't always clear or regulated. Best to bring 'em along if you want to avoid a burn or bites.

International power cord converter - India uses two prong power converters which you can buy in the luggage department of most department stores or Amazon. Worst case scenario you could pick a couple up at the airport if you happen to forget.
I can't decide what's better: The
tingly mint afterglow
or the moderately insane label.

Dr. Bronner's Soap - I'm always amazed by how many people don't know about this stuff (If you are one of them, there's a fab documentary on Netflix about the nutty soaper and his cult-like following). My fav is the peppermint castile but they are all good and versatile enough to clean everything from clothes to toes.

Pillow Case - So you'll always have a place to lay your pretty head (that isn't itchy or smell weird).

Powerbars/peanut butter - Having easy, familiar snack options close at hand may save you from an unfortunate hangry episodes on the road.  Bring plenty of both.

Microfiber Towel - Snag a lightweight, absorbent option for when going gets damp.

For the ladies:

Tampons - Tampons do not exist in India. I repeat: TAMPONS DO NOT EXIST.  Bring them with you or consider yourself warned.

Yeah, it's a thing.
And they're awesome.
GoGirl - There are times in life when you just don't want to lower your Brit Bits any closer to the ground than is absolutely necessary.  As it was, this little gadget saved me from questionable exposures more than once in India. In fact, it was so useful I'm including it on my gift giving list for all the ladies in my life who backpack/camp/attend outdoor concerts. Pop this in a ziplock along with baby wipes and some sanitizer spray and you may have 99 problems but bathroom conditions won't be one of them.

What to Wear

Western women have a bit of reputation in India for some reason (*cough*The Kardashians*cough*). In short, they think we're slutty. Not to say that you will be stoned in the street if you choose to wear American style clothing but you very well may be groped. (Just the messenger here, folks.) Frankly you are going to be attracting a LOT of attention anyway and your adventures may run smoother if you blend with the locals as much as you can.

Clothing in India is very conservative. Women should wear at least cap sleeves and pants/dresses should be knee length or longer. This can be challenging when temperatures are in the 90's (as they were when I visited). Stick with lightweight, flow-y materials and loose pants. Avoid plunging necklines and whatever you do keep your shoulders covered.  (Again, I'm just the messenger here - I don't make the rules.)
A few of FC lovelies touristing it up in Delhi.

If you want to try your hand at local garb, the easiest route is purchasing a kurta. These knee length shirt/dresses are unisex and have a slit up both sides that are worn with lightweight pants/leggings underneath. They are super comfortable, you can mix and match basically any color combination plus they camouflage any "flaws" so you can eat as much delicious Indian food as you want without fear of popping a button.  Basically they are the world's most brilliant clothing. **Bonus: When I got home my mom made mine into cute dresses by shortening them a tad and sewing the sides. I absolutely love them. Sari's on the other hand are basically origami dresses and unless you have a connection to a local who can walk you through wearing one, my advice is skip this cultural experience in order to avoid an unfortunate unraveling in public.

Shoes - Bring a pair of broken in closed toe shoes to walk in that you will not be bringing back with you. Seriously. You will step in things you cannot even imagine. I went with Tom's knock offs and burned them at the airport gate.

Flip Flops - For the shower.  It's a little like middle school gym class over there.

Scarves - There are many places in India which require head coverings for women, so consider stowing a couple in your bag or purchase something lightweight and colorful when you get there. Wearing a scarf is also an excellent way to detract attention when you are walking through the streets and they create a little extra shade to protect you from the sun.
Ashley, Katrina and I - All smiles despite toasty temperatures.

Zippered, over-the-shoulder day bag - I threw this in at last minute and I'm so glad I did. Mine was water resistant, big enough to toss in the essentials - extra scarf, camera, water bottle, money, souvenirs I purchased - but not so large it created a hassle. And because of the style, I could pull it in front of me while walking through a crowd or a particularly skeevy neighborhood without looking like a paranoid idiot.

Emergency medical kit

Medical supplies are actually fairly easy to obtain in India. In fact, I found it rather lovely to be able to waltz into the neighborhood Chemist (pharmacy) and have virtually any request honored (including rabies shots but more on that later) without need for those pesky doctor's prescriptions we require in the US.

That being said, medications aren't regulated the way they are in the states and there is a bit of a language barrier to contend with each time you make a transaction. So, save yourself some trouble and be sure to stow these "just in case" medications for minor emergencies. I didn't use the majority of my kit but was certainly glad I had it with me.

Chewable Maalox
Chewable Benadryl (allergies or sleep aid)
Bandaids (blisters or minor scrapes)
Travel antibiotics - Cipro (GI), Zithromax (Respiratory)
Electrolyte tablets

Nice if you have the space

BYO coffee with french press/aero - The coffee situation is a little unpredictable in India. And although there is plenty of amazing chai to be had, if you are an addict enjoy your morning routine, you may consider throwing a few beans in your bag. For an easy-to-pack alternative consider packing some Starbucks Via.  *Bonus: If you bring some to share (I'm looking at you here, Morgan) you'll make fast friends with caffeine starved fellow travelers.

Small individually wrapped candies/gifts - The poverty in India is overwhelming and you are
Sweet street babies will pull your heartstrings.
certain to encounter beggars who will break your heart into a thousand pieces - especially the kiddos. That being said, you cannot give money in these situations without perpetuating the problem or endangering yourself (more on that later) so it's nice to have  candies nearby to fill needy hands. Also, consider bringing a few inexpensive gifts to leave behind if you travel with Air BNB or are a guest in someone's home.

Toilet Paper - TP is sometimes available in India, but it is in limited supply and a little on the "rough" side. Consider stowing some ultra posh 4-ply to have on hand (so to speak) so you don't have to use what I lovingly refer to as the "self-serve bidets" the locals are accustomed to. Unless you enjoy a damp undercarriage that is.

Lavender/eucalyptus/peppermint essential oil - India can be a rather "fragrant" place. And while there is plenty of incense, flowers and spice, there are also less pleasant smells to contend with. Stowing a few essential oils in your bag may come in handy on particularly pungent days. **Bonus: Mint is a great remedy for nausea and there is a rumor it wards off lice. I don't know if that's true but I didn't come home with any unwanted tag-alongs.

 Come prepared for glorious mayhem!  India is a place like no other.
Not as helpful

Reusable water bottle - I am all about "going green" whenever I can, so it pains me to say consider keeping this at home depending on your itinerary. While I stayed with the Fresh Chapter crew there was plenty of "foreigner safe" water stocked at our flat and I used the heck out of my favorite Liberty bottle. But once I got out into the real world it was easier (and safer) to purchase sealed drinking water in order to avoid any inadvertent exposures.  Many upscale hotels do have suitable drinking water available but tap water is out of the question if you want to avoid praying to the porcelain hole-in-the-floor for a few days.

** Note: Be extra careful when purchasing bottled water on the street and listen for the seal when you open it. We didn't have any trouble, but apparently bottles are sometimes refilled with local water and resold.  When in doubt, toss it out - it's just not worth the risk.

Electronics -  If you want to avoid undo stress, consider keeping any unnecessary electronics at home on this trip or at least try to be inconspicuous. I travelled with an iPad mini that I bought a folding keyboard case for and it was perfect. I could take notes for future blogs and face time when the internet was good but it was small and durable enough to throw in my day bag without worry. I also brought a nice camera which made me nervous until I got there and realized theft wasn't quite as big of a deal as I thought. Use common sense to protect your belongings and you should be just fine.

The Backpack of my dreams

There were very few decisions I agonized over as much as which bag to bring along on this epic
Did I mention this gem is sold by a Seattle-based company?
Seriously - if you don't know about
Cascade Designs be sure to check them out!
journey.  There are about a jillion options out there - but in the end I opted for a Seal Line Commuter Tote Chris had on hand for camping/riding trips.  It was the best decision I could have made. This bag was practically custom made for India: waterproof and durable with limited pockets and adjustable straps. Best of all, it was comfortable enough I could hoof it around town without achy shoulders (and that's rare for someone who happens to be pocket-sized).  The good (and bad) part about this bag is you can only enter it one way, so it does require space bags to stay organized. But that feature also makes it practically impossible to pickpocket.  All around - two very enthusiastic thumbs up for this bag.

Unfortunately, due to the obscene number of souvenirs I purchased while venturing around India, I ended up buying a roller bag suitcase there as well - and that puppy was a giant pain in the kurta to lug around.  Mostly because the roads in India are questionable and laden with all sorts of unmentionable disease vectors.  Anyway, my advice would be to either show some self restraint by not purchasing the giant hand-sewn elephant quilt you eye at the market or plan ahead by packing a foldable duffle for souvenir overflow.

I did neither - but regret nothing.