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Tips & tricks about traveling in India

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything here due to many reasons, mainly because of my intense work & travel schedule during this spring, but now I finally have some more time to relax, create & write, so it’s time to share with you my impressions from our trip to India in May.

This track will help to set the mood and I’m sorry for bad quality of pictures- I didn’t take my normal camera because I thought it was not safe, so I just took some snapshots with my old camera and with ipad.

Holy cows in streets of India

Me & holly Indian cow

I always wanted to go to India, actually I like to travel everywhere, but as I love many aspects of Indian culture India was a priority on my list.  Topic of manifesting probably needs a separate blog post, but to make long story short I was doing some manifesting exercises and one of the things I wanted to manifest was a trip to India, so I was super happy when my husband suddenly saw extremely cheap plain tickets from Riga to India. We obviously took it as a sign from Universe and bought them without too much thinking. Actually after few hours the same tickets got much more expensive and reached more or less normal price of 700 Euros, so there was no time to think too long. Two of our friends bought the same cheap tickets, so were traveling together- two men and two girls.

We were going to India in May, which is almost the hottest time of the year (the hottest time was about two weeks after we left) and going there during the hot season might not be the best idea,  but it is something memorable for sure, even for such a warmth lover as I am.  As we successfully survived 8 days in +43°C I thought it could be useful to share some stories & do’s & don’ts for those who plan a trip to India.

We didn’t have too much time in India, so we chose to spend it mainly in Vrindavan (we visited Mathura & Delhi as well, but just shortly), which is a small town about 160 km from Delhi. Considered one of the holiest places in India Vrindavan is said to have 5000 temples and it’s one of the places where influence of Western culture is not so visible yet. It is also believed to be a place where Lord Krishna grew up 5000 years ago, so it is something similar to Bethlehem to christians and it’s very important pilgrimage place for hindus. Everything in this city is related to Krishna – from deities in the temples, to new properties for sale called “Krishna heights”, to local sellers shouting to you in markets near temples “Come come, Krishna shopping!”  It made me smile so much and though sometimes it seems as funny marketing tricks, but spirituality really plays an essential role there. It was fascinating to see how important God is to people there. And to be honest, you do feel strangely taken care of and led when you’re there. We didn’t plan almost anything for this trip and things magically turned out in well in all kinds of unexpected ways.

Temple in Vrindavan, India

Lord Krishna and gopis in mural of one of the temples

Lord Krishna and gopis in mural of one of the temples

Almost each of the house in Vrindavan is a temple, sometimes very small and unnoticeable and sometimes very impressive. The ISCKON temple is the newest and most suited to westerners. It’s restaurant Govinda’s is one of the rare safe places to eat if you’re a westerner (definitely try mango lassi if you’re there as it’s local specialty and just very tasty).
ISCKON temple in Vrindavan, India

ISCKON temple in VrindavanStreet of VrindavanMorning during Vrindavan ParikramaIlona during Vrindavan Parikrama- pilgrimage trip barefoot around Vrindavan

Local woman going through the streets of vrindavan early in the morning
Temple in Vrindavan, IndiaThere is this insane variety of animals on the streets- some of them are tamed, most of them are stray. I was trying to count how many different animals I have seen there, so:

*Obviously (holy) cows. The streets are full of them, most of them are decorated, loved by locals & are beautiful, calm creatures that you often stop to pet :) They roam free, sometimes people feed them with dried grass, sometimes they eat anything they find on streets and sometimes they go to the houses and ask for food, people feed them and milk them. That’s such a different relationship than what we have in west, especially when I think about factory farming

*Monkeys. Not so loved, but streets are full of them, too. Most of them doesn’t look too healthy or clean, they sit in gangs on the roofs or in small streets, watching you all the time for anything they could steal, which they do pretty well :) When you go out locals scan you if you are “monkey-proof”- meaning that you do’t carry anything shiny and hanging loose, don’t carry things in your hands and especially don’t have plastic bags- monkeys know that you normally carry fruits and food from markets in plastic bags and try to steal those immediately. Obviously you shouldn’t carry food in your hands, too :) One day Ilona and I were shopping in the market and we were approached by a guy who was from Indian TV and wanted to take an interview from us as foreigners about “monkey problems in Vrindavan”. We were laughing a lot and said that we don’t have problems with them and we don’t want to be featured in his interview. So we finished shopping and decided that we want to have a watermelon for lunch, so we went to fruit section of the market and bought a ripe 3 kg watermelon. When heading home Ilona was carrying it and I was going first and I just heard her screaming- when I turned I saw that huge monkey had jumped on her and took the watermelon from her. The monkey was now on the ground, keeping the  watermelon with her hands and biting it. I tried to take it from her and though at first she went few steps away from the “her” lunch, but then I made a mistake and stopped for a brief second to think whether I still want to eat the watermelon which was bitten by a monkey. She saw me thinking and unsure and took a fierce stand showing the teeth and again grabbing the watermelon. As much as I wanted the watermelon it was not worth to fight with monkey- they can have all kinds of diseases and they can bite you and being bitten by a monkey wasn’t on my wish list for this trip. So we just surrendered and local guy who saw this whole scene passed us by laughing…

Monkeys in streets of IndiaBuffalos– they look like cows, but are much more furry;

Donkeys;

Horses– not so many of them and they (oppositely from cows) looked very bad… People use them to carry weights and somehow it looks that they don’t feed them too much…

Camel– yes, I saw a carriage with a camel :)

Dogs– almost all of them stray, many of them dirty and not so healthy…  The strange thing is that they behave somewhat like cats in Europe- they don’t care about anything and just do what they want and where they want. It’s totally normal to see many of them laying on the narrow streets and to step over them when you want to go into the temple for example. Normally they don’t bite, though they can be infected with rabies.

Wild pigs. Well it’s something in between our pig and boar. Funny creatures eating literally anything they can find on the streets. One of the more interesting things I saw was pigs eating burning trashes in the street. In these moments you just feel really awkward and that you are not in this world;

Cats– we haven’t seen any, but locals told that there are a lot, but they hide during the day, because monkeys kill them if they don’t. Really weird and make monkeys loose their appeal totally.

Squirrels, lizards, birds and all kinds of other small animals…

So all this variety combined with shouting locals, constantly signaling cars, motorcycles and rickshaws on the streets (plus some chanting in almost each building, as almost each door is a temple) makes it a really interesting place. And remember that it’s always from 30 (during the night) to 40+ degrees, so that really makes you feel like in cosmos :)

Buffalos in IndiaAnimals in streets of VrindavanOur group exploring Vrindavan
Baby holy cow in streets of Indiamoment from live in Vrindavan
Accommodation: Personally I think that India is not a place to comfortably relax (Italy or Southern France is much more suitable for that…) and in this trip we were going for the experience of different culture and not for comfort. So obviously we were not searching for expensive hotels, western food & strong wifi, and even if we would have searched for those things, I’m not so sure if you can find them there :) At least not in such a small town, although I have many friends who were traveling in India in different places and even those who spend a lot in India didn’t find what they were looking for in terms of cleanliness & comfort. So what we did was that we tried to blend in the life of city, meet locals, hear their perspective on life and spirituality, went to temples, shopped in markets, bought & wore local clothes. We stayed in guesthouses of two temples.  For the first place we paid 2 euros for person per night and this also included a big, freshly made lunch prepared by a holy woman from the temple,  from local products and made with love :) Obviously the comfort level in the guesthouse was far from hotel or anything that you could expect in Europe, but it was clean and there we also had two lovely girls, one from Russia and one from United states who had their spiritual master in that temple and were living in Vrindavan for few years now, so we had wonderful guides if we needed anything and they were really friendly and caring and tried to help us with everything that we needed. For me this is much more important and valuable than comfy bed, especially when you travel for just 8 days.  After few days in the first place we got sick and as there were no proper air conditioner and electricity was going down about 5 times per night, we decided to move to another guesthouse, this time in ISCKON temple which is made mainly for westerners having their needs in mind. So they have electricity back-up from generator, air conditioner and wifi. As close as you can get to normal living :) For this we paid 7 euros per person per night with no food included, which is still a very good deal, but we kind of felt the lack of authenticity comparing to the previous place :)

Fresh fruits for breakfast

Fresh fruits for breakfast in inner yeard

Food & water: Basically it’s not safe to eat and drink most of the things there. As westerners we are not used to the bacterias that are in that part of the world and sanitary conditions are very different, too. Safest option is to buy bottled water, always checking if the bottle is really new as it can be refilled… We also drank filtered water at the first guesthouse because our neighbors/guide girls told it’s totally safe and they drink it all the time and it was fine. For food the safest option is to eat fruits that you buy in the market and wash REALLY well (we washed with tap water and soap and then with drinking water), but you also need to know which fruits to eat. For example we were told in the temple that all foreigners get sick because they come with a plan to eat only mangos (just as we planned :D) and mangos increase heat and they get overheated very quickly and end up in hospitals, so only 2 mangos per day are recommended. In India they still use Ayurveda and think in which way which food affects your body and mind and we learned some new interesting things.
Street food in general is not safe to eat, though it’s very very cheap. What we found to be safest option is to eat in temples, because all the food they prepare in temples is offered to God before people eat it and this requires much stricter standards than for food prepared for humans. You usually just have to donate for such food. If you have no intention to eat with your hands, keep in mind to bring your own utensils. As I mentioned above, another safe place to eat is restaurant Govinda at ISCKON temple. It has a huge menu, food is mostly Indian although you can find some western dishes as well (like “Personal pizza” and “spaghati” :)))) ), but we tried to stick to local dishes as there were so many we didn’t know and wanted to try. Prices there are also much higher than everywhere else in Vrindavan because it is created for westerners. But basically coming from Europe everything is still really affordable.

Health: No matter how much effort you are putting to stay healthy, clean your hands and so on you can still get sick really easily. As locals told us it’s enough to just walk and breath to get enough bacteria :))… And I believe that, especially when I saw people sweeping the streets and you have to walk through all the dust and dirt that’s flying in the air…Plus the heat is enormous and food is different from what you’re used to. From 4 of us 3 got sick, but strangely it didn’t last long, it comes & goes very quickly- one night you have 39 degrees fever (remember that surrounding temperature is the same or even more…) and the next day you’re fine. One interesting thing is that European medicine doesn’t work there. If you get ill- just go to local pharmacist and describe your symptoms and he will give you something that works. Pharmacists there are interesting people as well, but that’s another story…
If you’re going to the part of India where it’s possible to catch malaria it could be a good idea to get vaccination, although I think that vaccination is a tricky subject with lots of pros & cons.


Safety:
 Before going to India I read lots of awful articles about safety issues (especially for women) in India and though I know that they do exist in this country, but actually we didn’t experienced anything bad at all. Two times there were a guy kind of trying to steal from us, but it was SO obvious that he is following us that it was funny. So he was following us but when he saw that we obviously see him and his attempt and laugh from him he went away. But you do need to take a look at your things all the time and keep them safe. Something that we liked were products from Pacsafe. As I mentioned we travelled 4 persons together, so this of course makes it much more safe and comfortable, but to be honest during the day we didn’t feel not safe and few times we went to the market alone with Ilona. What I think is essential is to pay attention to local “dress code”- it’s not Europe and customs here are different. Ilona and I dressed according to local customs- long skirts, t-shirts with sleeves (showing shoulders is considered very inappropriate) and a light scarf on top to hide your chest. It’s easy to buy clothes in local shops and it’s cheap and when we were dressed like that we were treated with respect. It’s also a must to dress “properly” (as mentioned before) if you want to enter any of the temples. For men it’s not so important, though it’s still suggested to cover your shoulders. My husband bought local traditional clothes, mainly because they are so comfortable and it’s not so hot with them, but I think it also had another advantage. In Vrindavan it’s relatively common that westerners go here and choose their spiritual master and then stay here for few years or even all life, and they normally dress in traditional clothes, so when you’re dressed that way locals think that you’re here for longer time and treat you as a tourist a bit less (less attempts to sell you stuff you don’t need, less looking etc.), you kind of blend in.

As I mentioned above monkeys are a big issue, so you either have to be careful or carry a thing called “monkey stick” which you can buy in the market :) They are really afraid of it… It also helps if you can take a stone from the ground and show them that you will throw it to them. Monkey babies are cute, but it’s not a good idea to stare at them as they are really protective of their babies.

As we were told by locals it’s not really safe to go anywhere during the night so we tried to avoid that.

Heat: Though I love warmth, but this temperature was a bit too much for me as well. Obviously the better idea would be to go when it’s not so hot, but if you happened to be in India during the hot season you can still survive and even enjoy your holidays. You need to drink a lot of water, few liters a day. Best thing is to wake up really early, like at 5-6 and then you have time until 10 when it’s not too hot. At midday it’s really too hot and locals have something similar to siesta. I would like to say that it gets cooler in the afternoon, but to be honest it doesn’t. It just stay hot until the next morning, so you have to get used to that and take some relaxing breaks in the shadow. At night it’s still 30°C degrees :) Best thing that we found is to wear your clothes totally wet, in shadow they stay wet for less than two hours, but it does make a difference. At least wear a wet scarf. I had a hat, but as nobody wear hats there it adds like 500 tourist points instantly :))) And you don’t want to look like a tourist and attract even more attention there, so it’s better to wear a scarf instead. Glasses can be stolen by monkeys :)

Going through the desertCow & buffalo herder in IndiaIndia 5 by wholehearteddelights

Going around: Our flight was to Delhi and we landed just at midnight. We had no intentions to wander through Delhi at night which is not safe at all, so we ordered a taxi from company based in Vrindavan to be there at the time we arrive. We did this while we were still in Europe and it was a clever choice. Our luggage got lost, so we had to fill in additional documents and were late for our taxi, but in the end our taxi driver was still waiting for us and we safely reached our destination at early morning. People don’t speak English very well there, just the common phrases and almost nothing is written in English- just few signs & some street names… So it takes some time to get used to the city and to orientate. Rickshaws are wonderful way of transport- it’s cheap, it’s really fun and the drivers knows all the places in town so you just need to tell where you need to go. Best idea is to ask locals what are the common prices for the distances that you will be going and arrange the price with driver in advance. We haven’t tried trains or buses there, but from what I heard they are often late and crowded, so we used taxi and rickshaws as they are still inexpensive.

Prices: I believe that if you really want to travel you can also do it inexpensively (using Couchsurfing, Blablacar or searching for cheap buses and flight tickets. It can take some more planning and research, but what I have in mind is that you don’t need to restrict yourself saying you have no money for traveling. We found our plain tickets “accidentally” ( though I don’t think so because I did my manifesting exercises :))) ), but you can always check sites like Secret flying for good flight deals. We didn’t have any particular plans to save money during this trip, but after our trip we counted that for me and my husband the whole trip costed just 500 euros for one person, and this includes:
* Visa price
* Plane tickets  from Riga to Zurich and from Zurich to Delhi with Swiss Airlines (!) and back the same route (149 euros for one person both ways);
* Plane tickets from Munich to Vilnius and back;
* Gas to go by car from Vilnius to Riga and back;
* Cost for living in India for 8 days and we also bought things to bring back as gift and just to use for ourselves. For example I really like Chyawanprash, a local Indian food supplement which is not only called “elixir of life” but is also very tasty. I was shocked about the price differences- I bought organic chyawanprash there for 8 euros and here in Germany the same brand costs 59 euros

So I really feel that we have some good karma :) The whole experience inspired me to travel more and stop thinking that traveling to far away countries has to be expensive and I hope that my post will change your perspective, too.

And one final, essential tip… I wrote all those practical things which can be useful, but actually the main tip I would like to give for those of you who plan to travel to India is different. I want to suggest you to…surrender.  We never control anything in our lives (though we of course would like to think that we control everything) and in India you can feel this so so strongly… And it’s much better to just trust in God/Universe (or should I say Krishna? :) ), ask for guidance and let go of any attempts to control your environment or plan what will happen. Our luggage was lost in Switzerland and for two days we didn’t have it, we stayed in different place than we arranged before coming there, we got to know & spent time with people about whom we had no idea when we arrived, we got mysteriously ill and we got healthy again, we were fed and taken care of in temple by holy woman about who we had no idea before coming and so on and so forth… Not to mention constantly disappearing electricity… I would say that India really requires flexibility from you, it shows you that life happens the way it should happen and not the way you plan it to happen and you are left with a choice- either to try fighting it or to relax, trust and surrender. And I really encourage you to choose the latter.

Holy river YamunaBoat tripIndia 7 by wholehearteddelights

Would I like to live here? No, but would I like to come back there? Definitely, and maybe even some time soon :)

  • Alison

    It was such a nice story! I am inspired to travel to India again.

    I have a question for you. What kind of camera and lenses do you usually use because your photos are adorable! :)

    And it would be also nice to hear, how you became a photographer. Maybe you will write about that one day? What is your story? Is ir difficult to have your one bussiness and work such as freelanse photograpger? How do you feel about that? :)ReplyCancel

  • Hi Alison! Thank you! Normally I use Canon 5D mark III & these lenses:

    Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II (This one I need to change into better 50mm lens, just waiting for this one to die totally :) )

    Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM

    Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

    Canon EF 16-35mm f/4 L IS USM

    But as I mentioned in this post pictures are taken not with this camera.

    And regarding how I became a photographer… Don’t know if I will write about this here, maybe, but I have an interview where I speak about this :)

    http://www.sessions.edu/notes-on-design/profile-of-a-photographer-lina-skukauskeReplyCancel

  • Amit Das

    A nice written up travel blog. This is very informative for the first time Indian travelers and are passionate enough to travel a beautiful place on earth. Every state in India holds something rare and unique things for the travelers. Despite so much diversity in religion, culture, language, caste, creed, there is unity in the country. Any traveler will be surprised to see the thousand years old incredible monuments and heritages that are bringing glory for the country from years.

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