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How we travelled India for a year for the price of a Maruti Alto?

As we have pointed out in our We Are The Living blog, the one habit that gave us the freedom to travel is keeping note of of our expenses. We kept up with the habit during our travel too and have an accurate picture of our costs. What was surprising even for us is that the entire year’s travel cost less than what it did to live in a city. Yes, it indeed cost us less than a brand new Maruti Alto. And it is possible to do even cheaper.

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Travel tips: Driving around India

India 360 was a unique trip in terms of modes of transport used. We had three phases in the trip based on the vehicle used. During the first part of the trip, i.e. north Indian Himalayas between April to July 2017, we used public transport. Phase 2 and 3, were covered by car and motorbike respectively. We used our Hyundai EON Magna while driving around peninsular India, i.e. the west coast from Gujarat to Kerala and the east coast from Tamil Nadu to Andhra Pradesh and the Deccan plateau in between. For the phase of our trip that covered eastern and north eastern India, we used our newly purchased second-hand Bajaj Avenger motorcyle. We drove or rode over more than 30,000 km of the country’s roads. So, in this post, we wish to share some things you may already know about driving in India, and some things we learnt by good fortune and from mistakes. We are covering the post in the form of Q&A.

Is it safe to drive / ride around India?

It is never fully safe to ride or drive anywhere in the world. Even Sweden or Denmark aren’t free of road accidents. If you start living your life by avoiding risks, you will end up limiting your options and having less fun. It is reasonably safe to drive around India if you follow safe driving rules, even if the others around you are driving like they have left their brains at home. The fact that we are back from the trip and writing this blog is testimony for our statement. The thousands of motorbike tours and car convoys that have driven around the country will vouch for it and echo our statement too. There are few who haven’t lived to tell the tale, but that is true for road-trippers in every country in the world. We will cover some safe driving tips and tricks in a question in this post.

Which vehicle is the best to drive around the country?

Hari: My favourite is a sturdy motorbike (minimum 150cc). The mileage should be good too. At least 40 kilometres per litre, so that the fear of running out of fuel will not worry you. The wider the tyres, the better. Carrying a two-man tent and a 60 – 70 litre rucksack should suffice for two persons. Royal Enfield purists swear that theirs is the only motorbike capable of travelling comfortably over long distances. But I have made no such observation. Any 150cc+ motorbike does the job pretty well as I have observed for ourselves and for many motorbike travellers we saw along the way. Travelling by motorbike makes you prone to backaches and hence limits how much you can ride per day.

For a more comfortable journey, my favourite would be a compact car of 800 – 1000 cc. Would a car like that tackle the Himalayan roads? Even a 600 cc Tata Nano can ascend the steep slopes with ease on the better roads of Himayalas. That said, any hatchback or sedan with low ground clearance is unsuitable for those HImalayan roads which have atrocious conditions. While, SUV advertisements pitch themselves to be the best for the Himalayas, I have often seen that with their bigger size they keep ducking to the side of the narrow roads while allowing trucks and army vehicles to pass. For Himayalan roads, I feel that motorbikes are a better fit.

Our hatchback, Hyundai EON Magna, is comfortable for long drives, but cannot handle the part of Himalayas with bad roads.

What documents do I need to carry?

The following documents are mandatory and must be available immediately if any traffic cop asks you.

1. Your driving license. Make sure that only a person with a valid driving license is driving the vehicle. A driving license expires every 20 years and must be renewed on expiry. India accepts foreign driving licenses, as long as they are printed in English. If a license is printed in a language other than English, you need to procure an International Driving Permit, which translates the contents of your license into 18 languages, from the transport office that issued your license.
2. Registration book: is a smart card / booklet that assigns an all-India unique number to your vehicle. The number is matched to your vehicle chassis number on an all-India database. The registration number must also be visible on your vehicle on a white-coloured board with black lettering if you are driving your own vehicle. If your vehicle is rented, then it must display yellow letters on a black coloured board. Registration expires every 15 years.
3. Insurance: An insurance policy that covers damage to people and property other than your vehicle and yourself is compulsory and must be renewed every year. This is referred to as a third-party damage insurance. In addition, you can get a comprehensive insurance that also covers damages to your vehicle and medical treatments for you.
4. Pollution Under Control certificate: is a small paper certificate issued by a pollution testing centre to validate that your vehicle’s emissions are within the norms mandated by the transport department. A certificate is valid for only six months and must be renewed twice every year.

How much should one ride everyday?

The first point we lead with is NEVER to ride after 5 pm. By 5 pm, you should be inside a hotel room or at your destination, such as a friend’s or relative’s home. We made exceptions to that rule in familiar cities, but never in places we had no idea about. Driving after dusk throws up a completely new set of probabilities for accidents. Vehicles from the opposite direction drive with beams fully powered, blinding your eyes. People get drunk and return home from bars. Roads are poorly lit and you cannot see much to your front. Rain at night wreaks havoc with visibility and balance. And so on.

On a motorbike, the practical distance to cover each day was between 150 – 200 km for us. Your fitness may give you a different experience. With a car, we even drove 500 km on a single day. Most often, you will not need to cover such distances because you will already be in next town with sight-seeing features and hence, worthy of looking for a lodge. Our average distance driven per day didn’t exceed 100 km. It dropped to a mere 30 km in Goa. Andhra Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh needed us to drive 200 km every day for multiple days in a row.

How should we schedule fuel stops?

The answer to this question varies by region. In the Indian plains, you are practically assured of a fuel (petrol and diesel ONLY) pump every 25 km. 50 km is the farthest you will travel without finding a pump. It is not a valid assumption if you are driving in the mountainous regions of India, such as the Himayalas, Sahyadris, Niligiris or Araku valley. In those cases, fill up your tank in the most major town in the area before you leave for the mountains. If you are driving a low mileage vehicle such as an Enfield, you may even need to carry a couple of cans of petrol with you.

Fuel types other than petrol and diesel are NOT ready for an all India driving trip yet. There aren’t enough natural gas pumps in India to cover you for a country-wide trip. Taking an electric vehicle for an all India tour is still a dream an some automobile engineer’s drawing board.

How often should we service the vehicle?

Make it a point to service your vehicle as soon as you reach a tier 1 or tier 2 city, e.g. Mumbai, New Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, etc. The good points about these cities is that even if you vehicle needs to stay at the service station for a day, the cities have enough alternative transport to let you explore the sight-seeing places. If you have taken your vehicle for a bumpy road over the Himalayas, then take your vehicle in for a service as soon as you reach the nearest town with a service station. If you hear strange sounds in your vehicle, then stop over at the first habitation where you find a mechanic, hoping that they know what they are doing.

What are some safe driving tips throughout India?

1. Only persons with valid driving licenses and sufficient driving experience must drive during the entire trip. An all-India road trip is not the best stage for driving lessons or practice. That should be restricted to the area around your home or in a driving school.
2. Do not ride after dusk. Under no situation.
3. Always slow down at a junction, even if the traffic light shows green for your side. You never know when a ‘smart person’ suddenly decides that he can successfully jump the signal and get away before you have the time to react.
4. Never exceed 80 kmph even on national highways. The thrill isn’t worth the risk.
5. Never exceed 40 kmph on a mountain road.
6. Always switch your headlights on as soon as dusk sets in. Try not to use your headlights on high beam since that hurts others’s eyes. But if the road is poorly lit, then you have no choice.
7. Always make sure that your tyres are at the right pressure. Lower pressure leads to punctures and higher may lead to a burst.
8. Do not drive when your tyre treads are worn out. Get a new tyre or at least a second-hand tyre with treads intact.
9. Do not continue riding your motorbike in heavy rain or snow. You may have to stop for the day at the next habitation if the rain is really heavy and showing no signs of stopping.
10. On a snowed out day, wait for the army to clear the snow and give the go-ahead. In fact, allow a few more experienced motorists to drive ahead of you and follow them. You may need to return and stay put at your hotel while the army clears the snow. There is no point waiting right where the army is clearing the road. It may impede their progress.
11. During heavy rain, close the windows of your car and switch the air conditioner on even if at a low cooling setting. This will prevent your front windshield from fogging your breath and forming patches through which you can’t see. Do not drive your car in snow.
12. Always assume that the person driving in front of you can take a turn across your path without signalling to you. Anticipate it, slow down and keep your distance.
13. Due to point 12, before you attempt to overtake a vehicle, pause for at least three seconds and drive at the same speed as the vehicle at least 10 metres behind it to check if that vehicle won’t do something you don’t expect it to, e.g. a sudden stop, a sudden turn across your path, a sudden change of lane, etc. If something were to happen even if technically it’s their fault, your vehicle and you will also suffer damage and injury.
14. Always be wary of rickshaw drivers, poorly driving two wheelers and poorly riding bicyclists. If your instinct tells you that one of them is about to do something unexpected, then your instinct is usually spot on.
15. Crossing cattle is a nightmare in India. It deserves it own question.

How do I deal with cattle crossing the road?

A huge herd of goats blocked us on the way to Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh. We had to switch our car off and wait for 10 minutes to let them clear.

Here’s how different types of cattle behave. These are our observations throughout India and not empirically proven facts. I hope to give you a heads up based on our experience.

#1. Bovines (Cows & buffaloes): Never attempt to cross a bovine in front of it. Bovines stop and start moving several times while crossing. You cannot predict their speed or forward movement reliably. A good thing about bovines is that they never walk backwards or retrace their paths. If a bovine is in the middle of the road with enough space for you to drive around it, that’s what you should do. But behind the animal, not in front of it. A sitting bovine ignores all the vehicles without a care in the world. A reasonable assumption is that it won’t get up for your vehicle and will continue to hog the road. You can safely drive around it in any direction.
#2. Dogs, cats, roosters: The problem with these three creatures is that they appear to cross the road confidently, but panic on seeing your vehicle and retrace their path. You will be thoroughly confused about which way to swerve to avoid hitting them. It’s best to slow down a few metres in front of their path, even come to a stop, so that they cross without panic.
#3. Goat and sheep: Goat and sheep have a strange panic habit. On seeing you, they run in the same direction as your vehicle, trying to outrun your horsepower to get away from you. Like category #2, it is best to slow down or stop to let them ease off the road.
#4. Wild life! I am talking about big cats and even elephants. Yes, it does happen in India. Wild felines and elephants routinely cross national highways and surprise motorists. Call us lucky not to have encountered such a thing. Or perhaps unlucky not to enjoy such a sighting. This tip comes from forest rangers and trackers. On a four-wheeler you should roll up all your windows and start reversing slowly, carefully not to rev your engine so hard that it sounds like a growling threat to the animal. On a motorbike, kill the engine and don’t move if the animal hasn’t spotted you or doesn’t care about your existence. A revving engine might imitate growling, so better not to engage the animal. I have no tips to offer you if the animal spots you and doesn’t seem pleased. Just pray!

What if my vehicle breaks down?

On many national highways in India, the various numbers for road assistance are printed on highway signs. Your vehicle manufacturer’s manual mentions their highway assistance number too. In remote places like the north-east, the local truck drivers are nice enough to give your motorbike and you a ride to the nearest garage. In remote places like mountains, you many need to wait endlessly and patiently for help to arrive. Your best bet is to prevent a breakdown by servicing your vehicle regularly.

Would you recommend travelling in groups of vehicles?

It depends on your preference. Riding with groups is safer and problems can be handled together. But the slowest member of the group dictates the speed of the trip. This is something you will have to get used to. Also, it is easier to assemble groups for dedicated routes like Manali – Leh over a short duration such as a week to three weeks. It’s unlikely that anyone would take kindly to a year-long plan for driving all around India, since that requires a lot of decision making over career, finance and time spent.

Conclusion

Driving around India sounds thrilling and intimidating at the same time. Some doubts are common and hopefully we have addressed them in today’s post. Whatever your inhibitions, do not back out of a road trip around India due to doubt and uncertainty, since that decision may come back to haunt you on an opportunity missed.

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Travel tips: Being really present in your trip

Travel is all about exploring new places and meeting new people. It is also a way to discover yourself. You will often come across a form of yourself that you have never been able to meet in your day-to-day routine. To be fully attuned to yourself and to the places and people around you, you need to fully mindful in your travel. You should be truly present in every place and with everyone. Your physical presence at a place, but with your mind elsewhere is one of the worst ways to experience travel. If you travel for a long time, you will occasionally come across problems that will make your mind drift. But otherwise, you should be ready to receive every new experience with full attention. Sleepwalking through travel is the worst thing you can do to yourself. You deserve a good trip and a great experience, one to remember and feel in your veins forever. This post tells you simple tips to cultivate presence and mindfulness in your trip. Continue reading

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Travel Tips: Everything you need to know about camping Part 2

In the last post, Travel Tips: Everything you need to know about camping in India: Part 1, we saw what camping in India really takes. We saw the effects of weather, the problems with nature’s call and the fact that camping on your own is not the same as going with an organisation that set up the camping for you. If that post didn’t dissuade you from camping on your own and in fact fired you up, then this post is for you. We will give you guidelines on how to prepare and what to carry.

Tip #1: Try it out for cheap by renting

Before you buy all the equipment needed for camping, you may consider giving camping by self a trial and see if it really is for you. Most people start with high hopes, but find that camping on their own is tricky. The costly tents they purchased are now lying in their attic, while they prefer to go with organisations that set up camps.

In our opinion, you should rent camping equipment during your first outing. In Mumbai, we know a shop in Dadar locality that gives out equipment for rent. Similar equipment may be available for rent in cities like Pune and Bengaluru that are surrounded by hills and forests. Adventure equipment shops in towns like Uttarkashi, Mussoorie and Loharjung in Uttarakhand also give out equipment for rent.

Along with tents, you can rent other equipment like gas canisters, torches, ropes and shoes. If you are from Mumbai / Pune, you can also rent online at Bragpacker.com. Residents of other cities can check out 10kya.com

Tip #2: Firmly decide the number of persons for your trip

Indecisiveness can throw your planning out of gear. Image source: Amazon.com

Getting the number of persons for your trip correct is a major problem, especially if you are among a group of people who keep changing their minds. Organisations like YHAI make it easy on themselves by deciding batch sizes and taking in reservations. They already know the maximum number of people per batch. If people do not turn up, they still carry spare tents and food as reserves, since they already have hired porters for maximum capacity. The opposite problem of taking in too much people does not arise because they take in reservations for their treks.

The number of people for the trip determines how many tents & sleeping bags you’ll carry, how much food you’ll haul and the mode of transport you’ll take to your destination. It is always safer to err on the higher side. For instance, if you planned for 7 persons and only 5 turn up, that’s fine. But if you plan for 5 persons and 7 turn up, then you have a problem. Two persons need to be crammed into the available tents and the food also needs to get split into smaller portions.

For a group that’s indecisive, it is better to let each person buy their own equipment, such as a one-man tent, and carry their own food, rather than ordering catered food for everyone.

For India 360, the number of persons was always 2. We didn’t camp with anyone else, although we had several travel companions at several places. 🙂

Tip #3: Get the smallest and cheapest equipment you can

When you start camping, do not go for high end equipment that is used by professionals. There is no need to splurge for what will just be a hobby during weekends or during short to medium term travels, with the costs borne by you. Start with a one, two or a three-man tent by Quechua, the brand that is attempting to bring adventure at an affordable price to the people of India. You can pick up really good tents for really economical prices from Decathlon outlets. Cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Pune have multiple Decathlon outlets, one of them probably close to you. Otherwise, they have an online shop that delivers around India. Amazon India also stocks Quechua products.

You can find similar deals for sleeping bags, shoes, rucksacks, backpacks and dri-fit clothes.

Tip #4: Pack smart

A well-packed backpack / rucksack should stay upright without support and should not tilt to any side.

Your sleeping bag should always go to the bottom of your rucksack / backpack. It should be plush against your lower back. Other heavy items also go near the bottom of the bag on top of the sleeping bag. After your heavy items are done, pack things in order of priority in which you might take them out during your trek / travel. Items take out more often, such as sun glasses, caps, gloves, bandana, dry food, etc, should be at the top of your backpack or preferably even in a seperate compartment of your bag. Your tent usually straps to the side of your backpack and is tied by a strap or an elastic rope. Further down in your backpack should only be items that you’ll need when you camp.

After packing, make the backpack stand on the floor with no support. If it tilts to one side or away from where your back would be, then you have packed it unevenly and you need to redistribute. If it tilts such that it would lean on you, then that’s not a problem.

Packing smart is actually a checklist that goes A-B-C. The letter B stands for balance and is achieved when you pack your backpack such that it will willingly stand on the floor. A for accessibility, which means that you will be able to fish frequently used items from the top of the backpack, without having to rummage into the depths of it. C stands for compression and we’ll come to that point when we discuss ranger rolling.

Tip #4: Get the right backpack

You need a backpack with good adjustments. Your go-to bag should be 50 to 60 litres, while you should have a 15 litre bag folded and packed just in case you need to explore some spots around your camping site. The backpack should have enough straps such that you can yank and pull at them to create various measures of tightness and looseness. You should be able to tighten it enough so that it sits firmly against your back. You shouldn’t be able to slide your hand between your back and the backpack. At the same time you should also be able to loosen the bag, so that you don’t have to do multiple shrugs to get it on your shoulders in the first place. Nor should you have to struggle to shrug it off your back when you reach your campsite.

The correct way to get a backpack on your back is to loosen the straps and slide each of your hands into each strap, such that the straps sit on the elbows. Once both the elbows have one strap each, you heave just once and the backpack should automatically jump to your shoulders. Thereafter, you tighten each strap until the bag sits against your back firmly. Never get one strap all the way upto one shoulder. This leads to comical and uncomfortable episodes where you are trying to wiggle your other hand into the other strap and tumbling around.

Tip #5: Learn to ranger roll

Ranger rolling is way to pack clothes for trekking and camping. It involves creating pockets within the folds of clothes so that the item tucks into itself and does not unravel. The space occupied by ranger-rolled clothes is incredibly smaller compared to that by folded clothes.

Here is a YouTube video on ranger rolling.

You can watch the whole series on the Youtube playlist: Packing, Folding, Organizing by armygringo.

Tip #6: Always carry a steel plate, spoon and mug… and a sponge

Disposable plates, cups and spoons should be AVOIDED as much as possible. You should always carry a steel plate, spoon and mug for your camp meals. You should be able to wash them after use with water in a nearby lake, stream or pond. Also, never dump steel utensils directly in water bodies, unless it is fast flowing. You should wet a sponge and wipe your steel utensils clean. Mud is usually a good scouring agent and can be coated lightly on the plates before wiping them.

As a promise, also try to avoid anything that comes in a paper or plastic wrapper if you can and carry things in airtight boxes such as Tupperware. Granola bars and dry food can be taken out of their wrappers and stored in airtight boxes that can be carried in your backpack. Problems happen when you have wet or gooey food items like chocolates and juice in pouches and cartons. In this case, completely unfurl the plastic and carton and scoop every last bit / drop with your spoon and finish the item. Once clean of residue, the wrappers / cartons can be dumped into your back pack. If you are carrying a seperate food bag, then put all the paper and plastic waste right back in it as you carry it back to the city.

REMEMBER: No dumping paper, food or plastic waste in camping sites…… EVER! We repeat. Do not EVER dump rubbish in any camping site. Leave the world a better place than how you found it. At least leave it the same. Never deteriorate a naturally beautiful place with all your urban waste.

Tip #7: Basic tent pitching

We have already mentioned in the last post that camping should ideally be on short grass or a surface with earth / sand. The first layer that goes on is a sheet of tarpoline. The tarp sheet keeps the floor of the tent dry, should it rain or snow. Next comes the process of laying the tent flat on the tarp. Smooth out all the kinks and creases. Tents usually have a couple of fibre glass poles that form the skeleton. The skeletons go through designated slots on the tent walls. The poles are in in form of segments joined end to end by slotting the notch at one of a segment to the corresponding hole in another segment. The assembled pole can be bent to a semicircular or parabolic shape. This shape is what keeps the structure of the tent after it is pitched.

After the tent is standing, it is time to secure the nylon ropes to the designated loops on the tent wall. The other ends of the ropes are tied to ‘pitons’ or steel rods that drive into the grass or earth. The pitons are stakes in the ground and prevent the tent from flying away if the ropes are tied securely. If the ground is hard and the pitons cannot be driven in, then you can find heavy stones or rocks that you can tie your nylon ropes to.

Two fibre glass poles are passed through slots in the tent’s fabric. The poles hold the tent in its shape. The tent is held in place by the four nylon ropes whose ends are tied to loops in the tent’s wall and also to steel pitons staked to the grass. Our heavy luggage did the rest.

With this, the tent should last the night. It is time to dump your heavy backpacks and sleeping bags into the tent. Leave your shoes outside the entry flap of the tent and also keep a pair of slippers that you can use to walk around the campsite. Once you get inside, the combined weight of the backpacks, the sleeping bags and your body will keep the tent securely in place. At least ‘All izz well’ inside the tent, no matter what happens outside.

Here is a video on pitching a typical Quechua Arpenaz tent.

Tip #8: Try your tent and sleeping bag in your apartment hall / backyard / lawn first

Practising tent pitching at the hall of our Thane apartment.

You do not want to be fumbling with instructions on a camping site in fading light, wind, rain or snow. Always try pitching a tent in a known place such as your bedroom, hall, balcony, backyard, porch or lawn. Practise it twice.. and then more. Practise until it becomes familiar. Assemble and take down the tent again and again. Unroll and roll your sleeping bag as many times as you feel is necessary for practice.

Can our pitched tent take some baby mischief? We invited our nephew and niece inside the tent while practising pitching at their parents’ home in Assam. The niece is clearly claustrophobic and wants out 😀

Tip #9: Avoid cooking during your first few camping trips

Since packing for camping is already daunting, you do not want to make it more complicated by carrying raw food ingredients, a fairly heavy gas canister and a cooking stove. I strongly advise you against using firewood. It is hard to light a pile of firewood anyway. Also, it is not a good idea to cut fresh wood from trees and use them as fuel. Do not cause your own mini-deforestation. Using dry wood and twigs is fine, but you don’t want to gather firewood if you don’t know how to do it the right way. A gas canister and stove save you that trouble.

But all troubles are solved when you buy food along the way or prepare it before the trip. Take as much dry food as you can. On a multi-day camp, wet items like gravies, fresh fruits and fresh vegetables will spoil quickly. Drier items like granola bars, dry fruits and baked vegetable chips last longer. So do roasted, toasted and fried items like theplas, mathris, papads, tortillas, nachos and mixtures. Vegetables also last longer if they are pickled.

Tip #10: Pack a seperate set of clothes for your activities and for camping

You should always have one dry set of attire that you wear within the camp site inside your tent. This set is to keep you dry. It also keeps you warm if you camp in cold places. Never wear that set for activities like trekking, travelling, enjoying waterfalls, etc. Just like you have your day clothes and then pyjamas / nighties for your city life, you should have two sets for camping too.

In cold weather, your woollen socks, thermals, woollen gloves, woollen caps and dry tees and pants should make up your night dress. During the day, even in cold weather, you’ll use dri-fits and cotton. Through the course of your activity, your body will generate warmth. If you are out in the snow, you’ll need a fleece jacket, woollen gloves, woollen cap and a layer of woollen socks over your cotton socks. But that woollen set should not be the same that you wear for the night. Those will get wet in rain and snow and shouldn’t be used while sleeping.

Also, your night set should be packed in two layers of plastic or any other waterproof material to keep them from getting wet, even though your backpack may get wet.

Tip #11: Your water intake

Avoid plastic or glass bottles. Your best bet is to take a sturdy steel sipper that won’t easily crack or get dented. If your camping is also accompanied by activities like trekking, then we suggest you to buy a ‘hydration pouch‘, which is a leak-proof pouch that can hold 1 or 2 litres of water. A pipe with a valve is attached to the pouch. Instead of getting your backpack off to take your water sipper, you can leave a hydration pouch within your backpack, but keep sipping the water from the pipe after releasing its valve. When you are done sipping, you can close the valve. This is also useful to have a sip of water while lying down, say when you wake up from your sleep in the middle of the night to drink some water and intend to go back to sleep again.

Tip #12: Wet wipes, dry wipes, paper soap and hand sanitiser

Carry an assortment of wet tissues, dry tissues, paper soap and a hand sanitiser fluid. These come in handy when you attend nature’s call or also when you get your hands dirty, such as when pitching your tent. Remember to collect your used paper soap in the same bag compartment where you are keeping all your other discardables (plastic wrappers, paper pouches, etc). A spritz of hand sanitiser fluid disinfects your hands before you touch your food.

Tips #13: Your minimum luggage for camping

While there are several things you can carry for camping, some of them essential and some of them unnecessary & even weird (we saw a girl carry her hair spray and use it at the campsite!), here are the things that you should have at a minimum. These are in order of importance.

  1. Tent with its kit and tarpoline sheet. This is priority #1 since you are camping on your own.
  2. Water bottle or water pouch
  3. Wallet with cash (make sure you have CASH, since remote places have no networks for either card machines or digital wallets to work)
  4. Identity cards: Aadhar / passport, driving license
  5. Required permit if the campsite has restrictions
  6. Wet tissue, dry tissue, paper soap, hand sanitiser
  7. Torch
    For a battery-operated torch, carry extra batteries.
    For a torch with a solar charged battery, please make sure that the torch is fully charged by dusk. You can hand it on the outside of your backpack during the day, where it catches the sun.
    The best types of torches for camping overnight are the ones with a hand-operated crank. You whirl or press a crank attached to the torch and it gets charged by the kinetic energy. You may need to rotate / press the crank about 500 – 600 times to charge the torch completely so that it lasts the night. Makes for a good hand workout. Delegate the cranking among other campers too.
  8. Backpack / rucksack. Why is this as low as point #8? Well, you don’t need a backpack if you have driven to your campsite and intend to leave your stuff in the car until the next morning.
  9. Sleeping bag. A sleeping bag is not strictly necessary if you are camping during monsoon in the Western Ghats. That’s why we have it as point #9. If you are camping in the Himalayas, this would be point #2, right after tent. But contrary to what is advertised all the time, we don’t want to project that camping in India is all about being in the Himalayas. You can camp in forests, grasslands, riversides, lakesides, beaches, mountain tops, mountain caves (the last three are particularly popular in Maharashtra), outskirts of villages or even in plain areas near national highways all around the country, be it warm plains or freezing mountains.
    For warm areas, you can carry an inflatable mattress or an air pillow instead of a sleeping bag.
  10. Seperate dry clothes inside a waterproof bag for wearing at the campsite
  11. Dry food or long-lasting food. Not required if your campsite is a short distance away from restaurants or kitchens.
  12. Steel plate, spoon, mug
  13. Slippers for the campsite, preferably in the form of loafer socks, i.e. socks cum slipper
  14. Mobile phone, portable battery charger, appropriate cable to connect the phone to charger
  15. Camera, tripod, selfie-stick. Please note that selfie-sticks are not just for selfies. They can take photos from interesting angles without you being part of the photo.
  16. Plenty of episodes of your favourite TV / Internet series downloaded to your phone for offline watching. Even we have lost count of the number of episodes of Mentalist and Elementary that we watched during our India 360 camping days. This is useful for insomniacs. But then also carry a headset / earphone, so that you don’t disturb your tent-mate / neighbouring tents

Tip #14: Have fun

Camping on your own entails a lot of mental and physical exertion. It is easy to get diverted away from the natural beauty of the place you have chosen to camp. It is easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of activity around camping on your own. Pitching a tent reliably, unpacking and serving food, cleaning your utensils, taking care of garbage, setting up your sleeping bag, unpacking and packing your backpack and keeping everything safe for the night. But you have to take breathers and enjoy the moment and your surroundings.

Conclusion

Camping on your own needs a lot of preparation. It needs attention to detail and prioritising the right things. It needs the right place, right weather and the right person to do it with. But once you get a hang of it, you’ll be hooked. Even if you like going with a company that sets up camping for you, you’ll never get the same satisfaction that you derive from packing for a camping trip, planning your camping spot, pitching a tent and jumping into one that was set up with your own effort. You should definitely give it a try. Happy camping.

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Travel Tips: Everything you need to know about camping in India: Part 1

In western countries, treks have established routes and designated camping spots. They have certain facilities like a place for camp fire and even benches for having food etc. Camping in India is nothing like that. So most of the articles in WikiHow are irrelevant here. In India 360 trip, we camped a few times in Maharashtra and Meghalaya. Camping served as a good back up plan for us and enabled us to walk out of demanding lodges that charged too much for too little. In Maharashtra and Telangana, we even slept in the car on the days we found no places conducive to camping.

To locate a camp spot to pitch a tent is a job of finesse and fine balance. We joke about finding a camp spot being like the killing of Hiranya Kashyapa by Narasimha Avatar of Lord Vishnu. Wondering what camping has to do with Narasimha Avatar? We will tell you. Continue reading

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Travel Tips: Mind how they spell your name

India is a vast country with 29 states and 7 union territories. More than 20 official languages are spoken around the country. If you are Indian, your name is either an ancient Sanskrit, Urdu or Persian word. It may even have a regional etimology, like say names specific to Tamil Nadu, names of Burmese kings or names of deities of regional tribes. The Roman script was introduced to India only in the 15th century, by the Portuguese, who were the first to colonise a large swath of the western part of the country. The English language, that also uses the Roman script, also called alphabets, was only introduced in early 17th century. The world’s most widely spoken language has its roots in European languages like ancient French and Latin. Its system of writing and pronunciation is widely different from and often inadequate for Sanskrit or Urdu. However, with an attempt to standardise English as a business / official language across India and for opportunities abroad, India has widespread English education. Most government documents in India whether online or in paper form are in English in addition to the regional language. English is the most widely used language to fill up forms for procuring government documents. Forms from private enterprises, especially those with a business online, are almost exclusively in English.

Over the last 100 years or so, Indians have comfortably adopted English spellings for their names. Attempts have been made to use a combination of English letters to represent regional sounds not available in English. While most states agree upon almost standard spellings for a lot of names, a whole bunch of names have ambiguous spellings, with all the forms seeming and sounding correct. Add to it the regional differences in pronunciation and your name may have 20 to 30 different English spellings which are lexically correct.

Why you should care

For some sadistic reason, bureaucratics, both in government and private organisations of India, never copy your name exactly as you write in on a paper form. Also, they never copy-paste your name from one computerised form to another. They derive pleasure in re-writing and re-typing your name from scratch, along with their own regional tweaks. Don’t ask us why. As natives of this country, we too are puzzled. It suffices to say that your name will never be reproduced in a bureaucratic document exactly as you submitted it.

The stakes of a most spelling mismatches are low. A bus conductor or a train ticket examiner will let you off the hook, understanding that regional spelling differences are common in India. But when you approach areas with police or army, you may be questioned. Although unlikely that your entry is denied, the job of the police and the army is to be paranoid rather than be accomodative. You don’t want to take chances. After all, you do not want to miss an opportunity to visit exotic places just because a bureaucrat was careless and spelt your name differently on a permit from what your identity proof says.

It pays to check, double-check, even triple-check. You have been warned!

Some unspoken standards

Some combinations and substitutions are nearly standard. All of India agrees upon certain combinations of letters for certain sounds. E.g. the letter ‘c’ is almost never used other than to represent a ‘ch’ pronunciation. To represent the ‘k’-like sound, the letter ‘k’ is always used. You always spell ‘Kumar’ and not ‘Cumar’. Likewise, letter ‘c’ is never used for the the ‘s’-like sound that it brings to the word ‘centre’. Lord Rama’s wife’s name may be spelt as ‘Seeta’ or ‘Sita’, but never as ‘Ceeta’.

Other unspoken standards are: It’s always Jigna and never Gigna. It is always Fahad, never Phahad.

Let’s look at some forms of spelling mismatches that can occur in different regions in India and why they occur.

Western India: Maharashtra, Gujarat and Goa

Convention: There is a symbol ऋ in Devnagari script that the above-mentioned states pronounce and spell as ‘ru’. This letter combination is the closer to the classical Sanskrit pronunciation of that symbol than the way the rest of India spells it, i.e. ‘ri’.
Effect: If you are from the north of India with a name such as Rishikesh, Tripti or Rishabh, your name will be spelt in western India as Rushikesh, Trupti and Rushabh.

Convention: If a Devanagari name has a consonant as a standalone, rather than being joined with another consonant, then an extra letter ‘a’ is added to the English spelling. This is a rather complicated concept, but an example will clarify.
Effect: A north Indian name that is spelt as Mansi (मानसी in Devnagari) or Janki (जानकी) in north India, will be spelt as Manasi and Janaki in western India. Think of it as the way English language distinguishes the name Drake from Derek. You need the ‘e’ after ‘d’ to denote that the ‘d’ and ‘r’ sounds shouldn’t run into each other.

North and central India: Delhi, Chandigarh, U.P., Himachal, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, M.P., Jammu

It is easier to call this the native Hindi-speaking belt of India, primarily using Devnagari script. But they do not use English spelling rules that Maharashtra and Goa (also Devnagari using states) do. Note that I have included only Jammu and not Kashmir and Leh. Those two regions have different scripts and rules. So do the Spiti and Kinnaur districts of Himachal Pradesh. Also not included is Punjab, who share some similarities with the Hindi-speaking belt, but not necessarily the same spelling rules.

Convention: Based on the Persian and Urdu rules of Mughals, most consonant sounds in Hindi are combined with the sound of the next consonant, when they appear in the middle of words. Didn’t understand? Well, an example will help.
Effect: A name like Nataraj will be pronounced and spelt as simply Natraj. The sound  ‘t’ is combined with the ‘r’ that follows. Devaki becomes simply Devki. Parashuram becomes Parshuram. Note that this is the opposite of what happens in western India.

Convention: Male names usually end with a consonant. An ‘a’ sound at the end of a name is dropped.
Effect: If your name is Ameya, it will be spelt as simply Amey. Rama becomes Ram and Karna becomes just Karn. Note that this is done only to male names. Female names like Sangeeta and Vijaya do not become Sangeet or Vijay.

Convention: Some northern regions are unable to pronounce and spell an ‘r’ that immediately follows a consonant. In this case, the vowel that follows the ‘r’ is pronounced before the ‘r’. Here are some examples.
Effect: Dharmendra and Jeetendra become Dharmendar and Jeetendar. Prakash becomes Parkash. Karna is adapted as Karan. Even a simple 5-letter name like Priya becomes Pirya! So be very careful in these regions when they spell your name on an important document!

Western and northern India: a common mismatch

Since both western and northern India use Devnagari script which is used to write Sanskrit-origin names, there is a set of name mismatches that happens in both regions over south Indian names.

Convention: Sanskrit has a letter ट that sounds like ‘t’ in ‘tea’ and another one त that sounds like ‘th’ in ‘thesis’. But for both sounds they use the English letter ‘t’. For example, in the name ‘Nataraj’, the letter ‘t’ is pronounced like in the word ‘tea’. But in the name ‘Tara’, letter ‘t’ is pronounced like the word ‘thesis’. Why in the world? Well, that’s because Sanskrit has another form of these letters that are pronounced harder. In the name ‘Thackeray’, the combination ‘th’ (representing ठ) is actually pronounced like the ‘t’ in ‘tea’, but a bit harder. In the name ‘Navnath’, the combination ‘th’ (representing थ) is pronounced like the ‘th’ in ‘thesis’, but a bit harder. It is hard to explain this concept to a south Indian or to a westerner, because as far as they are concerned, there is only one ‘t’ sound and one ‘th’ sound. The confusion also extends to ‘d’ and ‘dh’. So what are the effects?
Effects: A south Indian with the name ‘Ajith’, where the ‘th’ is pronounced like the ‘th’ in ‘thesis’, will find his name spelt as ‘Ajit’ in north India. As far as a north Indian is concerned, it is the softer form of the ‘th’ pronunciation, so only a ‘t’ is required in the spelling. A south Indian Gayathri will see her name written as Gayatri. Likewise ‘Adhithya’ from south will become ‘Aditya’ in north, an example where both the ‘h’s are removed.

Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu has a culture very distinct from the Sanskrit-based states. Tamil language flourished seperately from the rest of India among the Dravidian race of people. Pure Tamil shares nothing in common with Sanskrit. All the letters look different. The grammar rules are different. And so, the English spelling rules are adopted from Tamil rules too.

Convention: The sounds ‘s’, ‘sh’ and ‘ch’ are interchangeable in Tamil. In fact the sound ‘sh’ doesn’t exist in pure Tamil. An extended script named ‘Grantham’ was created with some symbols made specially to represent the sounds ‘sh’, ‘h’ and a couple of others that don’t exist in Tamil. This was done to properly represent Sanskrit words in Tamil, so that knowledge could be exchanged between the Tamil and Sanskrit speaking regions without loss of pronunciation. That said, if a bureaucrat is following pure Tamil rules, here’s what it will do to your name.
Effect: A name Sharanya can be ambiguously spelt as Saranya or Charanya. To a Tamilian, these name variations are exactly the same, but it will obviously create a significant mismatch among your identity documents.

Convention: Consonant sounds are always followed by vowel sounds. Two consonants cannot follow each other, unless the second consonant is ‘y’. Within Tamil spelling rules, Sanskrit names like Tridev (‘t’ and ‘r’ follow each other), Saptarshi (‘p’ and ‘t’ follow each other and ‘r’ and ‘sh’ follow each other) are not possible. Hence such names may take a hit.
Effect: A name like Trimurti will turn into Thirumuruthi. Lakshmi will become Lakshimi or Lakshumi.

Convention: An extra ‘n’ or an ‘m’ is added to the end of male Sanskrit names that end with ‘a’
Effect: Krishna becomes Krishnan, Ratna may become Rathinam. Combining all the three rules above, the name Shravana becomes Saravanan.

Convention: Like in English, Tamil has only one ‘t’ sound (like the ‘t’ in ‘tea’) and one ‘th’ sound (like the ‘th’ in ‘thesis’). This is unlike the adaptation for soft and hard forms of those sounds in Sanskrit names. Likewise there is only one ‘d’ sound and one ‘dh’ sound.
Effect: If your name is Amit Sethi, it will be spelt as Amith Seti in Tamil nadu. Sangeeta Thakur will be Sangeetha Takur.

Eastern India: West Bengal, Assam, Tripura and Sikkim

Just like the north, west and south, the east brings its own cultural and linguistic identity to English spelling.

Convention: There is no ‘v’ or ‘w’ sound in Bengali, Assamese and Nepali. They substitute it with ‘b’.
Effect: If your name is Shiva, expect it to be spelt as Shiba. Vasanti will be Basanti and Vikram may become Bikrom. Hang on, did I just use ‘o’ as in ‘Bikrom’ and not ‘Bikram’? Yes. Check out the next convention.

Convention: The short ‘a’ sound is pronounced as a short ‘o’ sound.
Effect: ‘Chakra’ becomes ‘Chokra’. Ravindra becomes Robindra. This is why the capital city of West Bengal is pronounced and spelt in English as Kolkata, whereas the Bengali spelling simply says Kalkata, with no attempt to add the ‘o’ extension to the ‘k’ letter of Bengali script. A short ‘a’ is habitually pronounced as a short ‘o’.

Some common ambiguities across the country

  1. Use of ‘ksh’ / ‘x’: Names like Laxmi / Lakshmi, Baxi / Bakshi, etc.
  2. Use of ‘a’ / ‘aa’ or ‘i’ / ‘ee’ or ‘u’ / ‘oo’ interchangeably: Meera or Mira? Moorthy or Murthy? Akash or Aakash?

The effects of numerology and astrology

Converting a Sanskrit name to English is ambiguous enough. Add to this the fact that a lot of Indians believe in numerology and astrology. If a numerologist or astrologer tells a person that it is inauspicious to have 6 letters in a name or that one cannot have a name starting with a ‘k’, then the person obliges. Non-standard spellings like Kkhurana (with double k) and Akshataa (with double a in the end) can crop up. These persons need to check their spellings in every document they make.

Conclusion

A diverse country like India, while using a writing system which is not its own, can form a lot of ambiguities when transliterating from one of its many writing systems. Instead of expecting the native bureaucrats to get the spelling of your name to match your identity proof, take charge of it yourself. Ensure that you check all your documents and don’t settle for a mismatch. You will thank yourself later.

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Travel Tips: Start from home

“We would like to travel just like you, but we don’t even know where to start!”
“It must be awesome, but we can’t dedicate ONE YEAR like you did.”
“Gosh, Himalayas are too far away. Goa’s beaches are too far away. it’s such a large country, everything takes time to travel from where I live.”
“Where do I start and when do I start? I am so confused.”

Well, in this post, I am putting all the above questions, confusions and excuses to immediate rest. In this post, I suggest that you explore your own home like a traveller would. Get comfortable with your home and get to know it better. You’ll be surprised how much you didn’t know. If you have never travelled for weeks together before, then this will be your perfect first long-term getaway. Forget about going around the country. Forget about Himalayas and Goa’s beaches. Just be a tourist in your home zone. Continue reading

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Travel tips: Stay fit for travel, stay fit while travelling

We started India 360 during April 2017 and drew the curtain down during May 2017, despite not having seen every inch of the country. It was a time-bound experiment to see how much of the country we could travel in a year and our trip already overran by a full month. One thing that fuelled us and aided us to keep going was a very important factor which never flagged throughout the trip despite some moments of discouragement. Our supreme FITNESS. Continue reading

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Travel Tips: Preparing for a Himalayan trek

Everyone dreams of being in the Himalayas, among the green meadow, snow caps, fir trees and the clean air. While several people get the wish granted in the form of road trips through the highways of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu Kashmir, Sikkim or Arunachal Pradesh, many of them are not satisfied with experiencing Himalayas through a windshield and the windows of a vehicle or with the limited time in which they get to play in the lap of nature. Thousands of people enroll for treks over the trails of Himalayas every year. While the list of treks is countless, only between 50 – 100 trails are trekked on every year, the majority of them conducted by organisations like YHAI or IndiaHikes. There are independent trekkers who plan their own routes and do not depend on trekking organisations. Regardless of the method you follow, the checklist for what to wear for such treks, what to carry and how to maintain fitness and hygiene do not change.

Here are the broad categories that you should take care of in a Himalayan trek. Consider this to be a checklist of things essential to enjoy a trek safely and in good health.

Continue reading

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Travel Tips: Choosing your mode of transport

When travelling across a country as vast as India, you can use one of many modes of transport. You can use the local buses, share taxis, railways and aeroplanes. Why, you can even hitchhike and find yourself in the back of a tractor. Or you can take you own or a rented car around the country. To make things adventurous and nimble, you can take your motorbike. For an epic workout, you can even use a bicycle for certain routes. In India 360, we used all the listed forms of transport. However in this post, we are going to talk about the most common and sustainable modes of transport that we used and tested extensively throughout the trip: public transport, self-driven car and self-driven motorbike. Continue reading