My husband, an engineering and materials science professor at UNT, recently was invited to attend a conference in New Delhi, India earlier this month and I took some time off from my work and joined him. I spent weeks beforehand scouring various travel blogs, trying to figure out what to pack. As usual, almost nothing I read was of any practical use, and off we went, having packed all the wrong things.
The first thing I would ask myself, before travelling to an unfamiliar country, is: what sort of traveler am I going to be on this trip? Every single blog, even on professional upscale business travel websites, told me to bring things like water purification systems, water purification drinking straws, tons of medications, probiotics, vaccinations to get, snacks to pack, insect repellant, and female urination devices (because there would be no toilets and I might need to pee by the roadside.) These suggestions might be helpful to you if you are backpacking, traveling through rural areas, staying in low end youth hostels, or visiting in summer, etc. For a business traveler staying in mid-range hotels, visiting universities, businesses, and tourist sites, visiting in winter, they were un-needed space wasters in my suitcase.
Suggestions to bring American toilet paper were useful, even if only because it took up space in my suitcase, which later was available to pack souvenirs in, upon returning home. Of the 30 or so different toilets I experienced on this trip, all of them were “western” style (porcelain commodes, not holes in the ground) and at least 25 of them had toilet paper. Now, Indian tp may have been rough, but it was there. I enjoyed my super soft American style tp, but it wasn’t as necessary as I had thought. (And it must be noted, I was careful not to clog Indian toilets, as I had been warned that they couldn’t handle our tp, but to put it in the trash, instead.)
We were warned not to drink tap water: anywhere, in any form, and to pay attention to tap water in hidden forms, such as ice in drinks. We didn’t need the water purification devices. Bottled water was plentiful, provided by our hotel (two liters per person, per day), the conference itself (an unending supply of small bottles throughout the day), handed out by the bus company that drove us around, for sale at various tourist sites, restaurants, shops, etc. We ventured out on our first day, to an Indian version of a big box grocery store, aka Big Bazaar, and loaded up on more water, just in case. (Also food souvenirs to bring home as gifts.)
Hubster had a terrible time finding enough to eat, for even though he enjoys spicy foods, he hates vegetables. Our diet was 100% vegetarian northern Indian cuisine, except for one day when we played hooky from the conference, went downtown, and ate at McDonald’s. Hubs ended up eating rice and bread for a week. I followed the rules I first learned from travelling in Egypt, and have refined over the years in various Caribbean countries, Mexico, etc: No raw lettuces, veggies, or thin-skinned fruits or vegs (carrots, onions, grapes, tomatoes, etc), only thick-skinned fruits that have been peeled (watermelons, papayas, mangoes, cucumbers, zucchini, etc). The issue here is that you don’t know if the fruits or veggies have been washed, and even if they have, the water used to wash them might not be clean. No raw milk, raw cheese or raw dairy. Pasteurized is ok. I ate cooked vegetables and rice in various curries and other Indian dishes, had egg omelets for breakfast with fresh cut papaya on the side, Indian breads, tea that had been boiled, and had a fine time. I never got “Delhi Belly”. I was also careful to wash my hands before each meal with soap, as well as my knives, forks, and spoons for the same reason as the unwashed fruits: you never know how or if they were cleaned. Our Indian friends ate with their fingers, using the bread to scoop up the food.
One smart item I packed, that I wished I had packed more of (next trip to a third world country, I will pack more) was multiple hard dry tiny hand soaps. You may be the sort who carries hand sanitizer around and squirts it on yourself all the time. Because I have an extremely complicated auto-immune disease, the advice of my own personal doctor (and my brother-in-law, also a doctor) is that for me, soap is better than hand-sanitizer. Soap also can be used for multiple things, like washing your knife, fork, and spoon as well, if you feel they look sketchy; you can use it to wash your underwear even, in a pinch. Almost on a whim I had tossed in a few tiny little bars (from my collection of toiletries lifted from other hotels – here’s a great way to use all that stuff) at the last minute, while packing. Small bottles of liquid hand soap would work as well, I just don’t like the fact that they always seem to leak into my handbag. As soon as I got there, I wished I had more soap that I didn’t mind leaving behind (hence the small soap) at various roadside restrooms, or washrooms as they are called in India. While nearly every restroom I encountered had tp, almost none had soap. Solutions abound, of course: you can lug around your shower soap, or cut it up into chunks, or your bottle of shower gel. I got tired of carrying all that stuff, was weighted down w bottles of water, as it was, and tried to lighten my load any way that I could.
A good friend also visited India, a few weeks prior to my trip; she went on a work-related trip to Bangalore. We compared notes, afterwards, and we both agreed: Call your cell phone provider, and tell them you are travelling to India (or wherever) and to update your phone plan for that country for however long you will be there. Hubster has primarily Indian grad students, who gave him lots of complicated advice about buying a burner phone to use in India, bc you use it for everything (more on that, in a minute). We skipped this advice, bc it was too complicated and we didn’t have time – hubster was there to work, after all. By simply telling our phone carrier, AT&T, that we would be in India for a week, we were charged a rate of $10/day, reasonable to us, and our phones (I have an iphone 8, hubster a new blackberry) worked seamlessly, just as if we were in the USA. This one aspect of our trip relieved a great deal of our stress and we carried on, just as we always do, looking up info as we go on the internet (What time is our flight? Which gate? Where’s the best restaurant in this neighborhood? Which are the top 10 Delhi markets? What are the hours for Big Bazaar? What’s the last late-night train?).
The most important thing we used our phones for was the uber app. Hubster’s grad students had warned us: no one uses cabs any more, everyone uses uber. We started out the very first day, asking our hotel front desk to call us a cab, and they tried, but none were available, or answered their call. So we just ubered it, all around Delhi. We were staying away from downtown, in far nw New Delhi, near the university that was hosting the conference. We ubered back and forth to “Old Delhi”: Connaught Square, and all the shops/restaurants/tourist sites in and around that area. An hour twenty-minute ride from our hotel to this area cost us about $5 US via uber. Short hops from here to there were often less than $1. You just can’t beat that. It was as easy to use as it is ta home.