Here are some things I had to figure out and learn specifically about traveling to India for the first time. I hope they might be useful to you!
Passport / Visa
I worked with a woman at my company and ItsEasy to get my passport visa. It was relatively straightforward and they kept in good email contact with us, especially when a piece of information was missing. Because I needed my passport for Spain in September, I began the process a few weeks after I got back, so maybe it was October (for end of November travel), and I had it back in plenty of time. I did take U.S. Consulate information with me, and registered with them at the STEP web site. (Note that I’ve never done this for any of my other international travels.)
Travel Clinic and Health
I went to the Travel Medicine Center at Mount Auburn Hospital and had an easy time with them. I did my vaccines in two separate doses: In August I got the Hepatitis A, Tdap, and the (regular) flu vaccines. On the last day of my Spain trip (that happened soon after), I came down with an AWFUL bug, likely because my systems were so stressed. I was scheduled to get Typhoid and Polio in October, but ended up only getting Thyphoid because just a few weeks prior, the Polio vaccine was made optional for travel to India. They also gave me Malarone as my “malaria prevention” medication, and Azithromycin (just in case of extreme diarrhea). The Malarone is supposed to be the best possible variation of this toxic substance, and it should be taken at the same time each day with food, which is tricky when traveling across timezones, so you may want to set an alarm. They also gave me a lot of additional advice about traveling to India, including pamphlets and information about buying DEET (20-25%)–I got a roll-on version to use just on my exposed hands / feet–and a nasty thing called Permethrin, which you find in the camping section at a sporting goods store like DICKS. You spray it on your clothes and let them dry for a few days. It supposedly lasts many washings, which is why I only sprayed two outfits I was prepared to trash (including close-toed shoes), and packed them in large Ziploc bags.
Two more things about this:
- I hate putting toxic substances into my body. Those of you who know me know I hardly take Advil. Yet, seeing posters around Mumbai that say “Fight the Bite!”, alluding to malaria and dengue fever, convinced me I did the right thing. In Varanasi, I was VERY glad to have the two outfits sprayed with Permethrin, and that’s where I wore (and left) them. Mugdha’s recommendation for mosquitoes while I was there was Odomos Mosquito Repellent Cream, though I didn’t try it.
- Detox! Detox! Detox! My acupunturist gave me a treatment before and after the vaccines, and a homeopathic detox kit when I returned and was finally done with the Malarone. Once again, I felt sick and very tired. Some of this was jetlag, as the return (especially without sleep) is worse than the arrival IMHO. Also IMHO, it’s best to find a way to clean out your system after doing something so intense as all these vaccines / medications!
The travel clinic will tell you to avoid uncooked veggies (like salads) and fruits that you can’t peel yourself. Ice and tap water (including teeth brushing and bathing, though I questioned this at a place like the Mumbai Hyatt) are also to be careful of, as is water for coffee/tea–be sure it’s REALLY boiled unless you use bottled water for that too. Also, open your own water bottles unless it’s someone you trust doing it, as I heard there is possibility of them being reused/refilled with regular water. (I saw no actual evidence of this.) The travel clinic gives you a yellow travel card listing your vaccines, but no one ever looked at it (I kept it in my passport). As an side, you may want to contact your insurance company to find out about health coverage overseas, in case of an emergency.
Verizon Wireless (my mobile phone provider) has a Global Services division that you can contact to temporarily modify your plan so you can use your iPhone. (In some countries–like Spain–your phone may not work at all; in those cases they will give you a loaner for 30 days.) Be sure you’re completely clear of what charges to expect–I had a few surprises even though I thought I’d done my homework.
Flying Long Distances
Doing a layover in Heathrow was awesome. I had enough time to get off the plane, stretch, find my way, grab a bite, etc. However, I’m not the type of traveler who likes going direct (there was an option to do that from New Jersey but I thought, “Hell no!”). Although I love Indian food, I took the following as travel snacks: a blender bottle with protein powder/scoop stuffed inside a Ziploc baggie, almonds and cashews, dried fruit snacks, Lara bars, and Vermont Beef Sticks. I also got some Starbucks VIA packets for use with the kettle in the hotel room, to have coffee I trusted. (Aside: many people will tell you never to eat street food. I did several times once I got to Varanasi and I wish I had been more adventurous in Mumbai.) British Airways flights between Heathrow and Mumbai will offer travelers a choice of an Indian plate or something else. More things I found helpful for the long plane rides (and sometimes Varanasi) included travel-sized: (pre-moistened) face wipes, hand sanitizer, toothbrush/paste/mouthwash, hand lotion, lip balm, comb, eye mask/ear plugs, tissue packs. On my way there, one thick book got me to London, and I was able to sleep on the second plane. On the way back, however, where I couldn’t sleep, having downloaded some movies from Amazon to my iPad was a savior. For a theme try Slumdog Millionaire or the Story of India TV series.
Once landing at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (Mumbai Airport (BOM)), head to the Passport Control / Immigration desks. Behind them there is a sign that will tell you where to pick up your luggage. (The signage was all very good.) Put your bag(s) in the X-ray machine on the way out, in the “Nothing to Declare” line (if you have nothing to declare, of course). Once you exit the building, you will find a large square where MANY drivers and people are waiting to pick up travelers. Be sure you have a mobile phone and can contact your driver so you can find him easily. It might be helpful to wear distinctive clothing! The Lal Bahadur Shastri International Airport (Varanasi Airport) is quite small, so getting picked up is easy. I’d recommend having it arranged prior to landing though.
Money, Currency and Tipping
As with any international trip, be sure to contact your bank to let them know you may be using ATM and/or credit cards. Credit cards were accepted in many places, but the more remote, the more likely cash is key; ATMs give rupees, but in more remote areas like Varanasi, they are harder to come by. The hotels can make change, but they were not generally feasible for doing good currency exchange. As I write this, $8 is almost 500 Rs. (rupees). Tips seem to be appreciated by most. Here are some guidelines I was given: 100 Rs. for breakfast / room service, 150-200 Rs./day for chamber maid. After weekend trips, I’d tip my drivers 1000 Rs. and they seemed very happy.
Mumbai was quite hot and humid in November (which I’m rare and LOVE). It was in the 90’s just about every day. In Varanasi it was a (relatively speaking) cooler low-mid 70’s in the evenings.