Normally I start blogging once our trip has started, but I thought I would start my first post a little early.  By the way, if you are reading this, please leave a brief comment – it really makes a big difference.  On a previous trip, I just about gave up blogging as I thought no one was reading it, but kept it going if nothing else as a personal journal.  Turns out that lots of people have told me that they enjoy reading about our travels – if you are one of those, please let me know.

Our eldest son Ben just graduated from university and will be starting his full time employment in August, so this will likely be the last time our family is able to make an extended trip.  We will be traveling as a group of 4 – me, my wife Kelly, graduate Ben, and our youngest son Aaron who will be returning to college in the fall as a sophomore.  In all, we will spend about five weeks traveling to a variety of locations throughout the country.

Our general rule for summer travels has been to try to go to places cooler than Austin, Texas during the summer, but we’ve violated that once or twice.  We’ve always wanted to go to India and this seemed like the right time, although we expect it to be very hot and possibly quite wet, especially at the tail end of our trip.  Although we have not been to India before, we have spent a significant amount of time visiting Indian communities in different locations around the world.  We have also had some of our most memorable meals in Indian restaurants in odd places such as Bangkok, Thailand; Szeged, Hungary; Melaka, Malaysia; and Quito, Ecuador.  In Quito we ate there with an Indian family who now live in the US and they thought it was some of the best Indian food they had ever had.

However, visiting “Mother India” will of course be a different experience and one that I am anticipating with eagerness and some trepidation.  Mostly what I wanted to include in this post is some of the ways we try to prepare for a trip, but I thought it might also be interesting to record some of my expectations and then look back on them as we experience the reality of the world’s second most populous country, and its largest democracy.

I am expecting India to be one of the most diverse, if not THE most diverse country in the world.  Certainly this is true of religion, with notable communities of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Jews, Parsis, and others, as well as a wide diversity of economic conditions, geography, architecture, dance, music, language, food and all other aspects of culture.

Some predictions:
– We will be awed by the culture
– We will taste some incredible food (and hopefully learn how to make some of it).
– Each of our senses will be overloaded, and not always in a good way!
– At times we will find ourselves very tired and frustrated
– Attitudes towards time and details will test our patience
– We will be better for the entire experience

The process of preparing for a self guided trip of this nature is quite a bit different from joining an organized tour.  Rather than just show up at an appointment place and time and be whisked from point A to point B, all the research and planning is our responsibility, which although a lot of work, is also one of the things I enjoy as it requires me to learn a lot more about the places we will be exploring.  The key advantage of traveling our way is that we have complete flexibility to go as fast or as slow as we want.  When an experience might be greatly enhanced by the knowledge of a local guide, we’ll hire one.

The preparation for these kinds of trips happens a long way in advance.  Informally, I’ve been doing the research for a few years.  There are various places that are on the dynamic list of locations we ultimately want to visit.  Often the opportunity to go there doesn’t occur for a few years.  In the interim I talk to people who have visited the country to listen to their experiences and mentally note the sorts of places and things that we might want to do or try to avoid when we eventually make the trip.  In the case of India, I’ve also done a fair amount of research on intercultural issues as I have helped Indians relocate to the US and Americans prepare for ex-pat assignments in India.  These programs have also created interesting opportunities to talk with native Indians about their attitudes and expectations between Indian and US cultures.

Next in line is usually reading.  India has been on my radar for a while and so I purchased a good India guide  a couple of years ago that I’ve browsed from time to time.  My two preferred travel guides are the Footprint series out of the UK and the DK Eyewitness Guides, which are much more visual and useful for people who don’t like to do lots of reading.  Of course websites are important too and for general information I like wikitravel.org

After listening to some of the history of India (see below) and the importance of its traditional texts, I found a book at Half Price Books on Hindu Tales that looks very readable.  In preparing for a previous trip to Thailand, I read the Ramayana in translation, which is a key Indian text in the form of a saga, sort of comparable the Iliad or Odyssey.  Also while at Half Price Books, I found an audio course and a book on Hindi language.  I have no illusions of becoming fluent in Hindi, but learning a little of the language provides insights into the culture and being able to speak and understand some phrases goes a long way to trying to create a cultural bridge with individuals.  Many times I’ve found people who claim not to speak any English, so I use my limited knowledge of their native language. Usually after a few minutes, it turns out that they do speak some English, but weren’t confident enough to use in until they saw me butcher their language!  Even though English is widely spoken in India, I suspect I’ll have a chance to say a phrase or two while we are there.  India has more than 400 distinct languages and dialects, and every Indian I have previously met spoke at least 3 languages – their local dialect, Hindi, and English, and often 5 or more.

Once the decision to make the trip has been made, probably the first logistical issue is booking the travel.

UPDATE:  I realized this morning that I left out a very important step.  The first real logistical issue is to figure out if there are any special travel documents required, such as visas, which for India, there are.  In fact there are many different types of visas, even just for tourists – single entry, multiple entry, 6 month, 5 year, 10 year, all at different prices and some with different requirements.  The Indian government warns not to book travel until the necessary visas have been received.

Booking travel could be a whole series of posts in and of itself.  Suffice is to say that the days of really great travel agent service is behind us.  The nature of travel agent compensation and the huge variety of contemporary travel options means that travel agents don’t much incentive to do detailed research.  It can be helpful if you are able to find an agent specializing in the area to which you will travel, but I had no success in this regard.  When I had a travel agent price out the basic US-India flights, they came back with a quote that ended being nearly $900 per person more than what I ultimately found.  And the flights that I got were on our preferred airlines, shorter, and to the specific locations we wanted.  Bottom line is that if you are planning your own travel you need to be willing to do a lot of research (and maybe get a bit lucky with your timing) if you want to get the best deals.

Having the major flights in place, the next concern is health.  Most tropical areas have specific health risks and require certain inoculations.  Luckily we have an excellent Travel Health Clinic in Austin which I have previously used.  They were able to reference all our previous records and determined that for most of us we just needed to do a Typhoid booster, remind us about healthy traveling, and setup malaria protection.  It turns out that I needed some additional shots, but our family doctor was able to take care of those once we knew what they were.

I’ve previously written about malaria protection, and in reality the goal is to avoid being bitten by any insects due to a variety of diseases that get spread that way and for which no inoculations exist.  But for malaria specifically, we generally use the medication Malarone in addition to bite avoidance measures.  Since we are traveling as a group of 4, one way to save some money on what can be expensive medication ($6 per pill per day at retail) is to order a 90 day supply for 2 people.  Since we need less than 45 pills per person, these two prescriptions will cover all of us.  Other health precautions include putting together a travel emergency kit including key medications and first aid supplies.  Talk to your doctor.

An essential aspect of protection from insects is to use Permethrin treated clothing.  There are a few products that are sold that come pre-treated and lucky for me I was able to get a good deal on a few shirts at the Columbia Sportswear outlet in San Marcos.  But mostly we self treat our travel clothes with Permethrin sprays or dips, which requires (a) that you have all your travel clothing picked out and (b) that you allow time to treat and dry your clothes.  We travel very light on these trips – rather than carrying enough clothing for the whole trip, we plan on doing laundry.  Having lightweight, durable, easy drying clothing is key, and can get pricey.  Let’s just say that REI and Columbia Sportswear did well from us.  Thankfully they both had good sales on for the Memorial Day weekend, but our wallets are still a lot lighter!

Apart from clothing, and medicines, outfitting also includes making sure we have appropriate gear with us – enough stuff to make our lives easier, not so much stuff that we overload ourselves.  I am planning on getting pre-paid Indian SIM cards for two of our phones, hopefully with data access, so this requires getting our phones unlocked by our mobile provider such that they can accept other SIM cards.  Failing to do so would make the cost of using the phone prohibitive, especially with data access.  I’ve heard horror stories of people who didn’t know about the extreme costs ($15/MB or more) and came home with $1,000 plus mobile phone bills.  We have to be able to charge our phones and any other personal electronics we bring, so an India power adapter is essential.  One good tip for charging multiple devices is to take a single India power adapter along with a power strip from your country. This means you can use all your regular chargers and just need to have one power adapter.  You can even get compact travel outlets with built in USB ports, meaning that you just need to bring the appropriate cables and you can charge a couple of phones with one small device and still be able to plug in other things.   I bought one of these from Amazon and am looking forward to using it this year: http://www.amazon.com/Monster-Outlets-300-Laptops-USB/dp/B003TXRTNG

Some other areas of research include watching videos and films.  PBS had run Michael Wood’s BBC series called “The Story of India” which we found available on Netflix.  At times it was a little dry, but the 6 hour long episodes gave a very good overview to the complex history of this country.  We also plan on watching “Ghandi” and a few other movies.  Kelly and I want to see the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel before we go, which I understand was shot in Jaipur, a location we plan on visiting.

Some time ago I bought the Great Courses lecture series on the world’s great religions, which includes a 12 hour course on Hinduism that I was able to re-listen to in my car.  Having to drive to and from Dallas last week gave me the opportunity to finish most of the course in one day.  This was an excellent course and I know it will enhance my understanding of many aspects of Indian society that we experience, but perhaps the single biggest learning from the course is that if you think you understand India, the teacher has been things seem much simpler than they really are.

So, lots of preparation.  Looking forward to seeing useful any of it turns out to be!

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