Craig N. Dolder, Ph. D. Acoustics

7 Quick Takes on Indian Travel

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Introducing quick takes and the linkup.

My Austin friend Lindsay (http://lindsayloves.com/) is an active blogger who I admire for her dedication to blogging. She’s been using the 7 Quick Takes format for a while now and I’m joining the linkup for three main reasons.

1: I like the format as it allows me to post on a variety of topics.

2: It requires me to keep them short so I don’t write so much I don’t finish it for a month (or two).

3: It encourages me to post weekly.

None of these are the typical reason for a linkup and I could make all these convictions without joining, but this seems like a group of fascinating people and I look forward to the experiment.

— 1 —

The philosophies of finding a room.

Before this trip I had always traveled using the traditional philosophy of booking ahead. This is the path of least stress, which I generally favor. However, this method proves difficult for a few reasons. Firstly there is a severe lack of places with online booking in Sri Lanka and India. Secondly, If a place is mentioned in a tourist guide, chances are it is fully booked. Lastly, any place with good reviews or online booking will be at least 2x as expensive as an equivalent room with no online booking or web presence.

The second method is to travel early and go hunting for a room. This method is fraught with disadvantages: You are carrying your gear until you find a place and agree; Many places will be fully booked; Every cab driver that sees you with a bag will try and take you to their friend’s place (recommendations made on commission, not quality); You have to navigate in an unfamiliar city; You take time that could be used touring or resting. That said, this is the only way it appears to get a decent rate. While I do not have this down to an art, I have met many that do. They find the place in town with the most lodging (easy to do with a guide book), get dropped nearby and walk place to place haggling. They also never take an offer without first walking out the door (something I have only done once, and it worked). Of course if the sun sets and the first places you asked at were all full you are pushing your luck, which leads to option three.

Let a taxi driver take you to their friend’s place. The idea of this sounds like a nightmare to me, but the two times I have resorted to taking unsolicited device from strangers it has worked out extremely well. The second time I had two individuals haggling over taking me to their allies, and the place I chose was ideal. First, make sure they are not taking you far and they agree to take you back if you decline. Second, make a judgement call on their honesty. It’s a tough thing to do. Every place I have visited shows you the room first, then you talk about prices.

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The next quick topic has to be taxis.

I mentioned in topic 1 that in a pinch they can be a useful resource; however, don’t be fooled. Taxi (here I am referring to both formal sedans and auto-rickshaws) drivers lie regularly and more as a rule than an exception. If they can say something in order to encourage you to take them or pay them more they will. This includes statements like “there is no bus going there today,” “the next bus doesn’t leave for two hours” (in that case the bus left every 20 minutes), “that place is closed,” “The entrance is 2km away” (in this case the entrance was about 400m away, I’m glad I walked), and “no one will take you for less than X amount” (I ended up getting a taxi 150m down the road for less than X/2).

The other challenge is negotiating the price. Many places don’t have taxis with meters. Other have taxis with meters, but the meters are conveniently broken. A few drivers have meters and are honest that they work, despite there not being a tipping culture I often tip these drivers for their honesty (also, the meter + generous tip is always cheaper than the price I can negotiate). I usually highball negotiated prices or accept the initial offer, that’s a known character flaw. One time I had a taxi driver claim he had a working meter, then he pointed to his broken tachometer and quoted an exorbitant amount. I should have taken a picture of the cab and called the police, but the person I was traveling with paid him more than he deserved (1/6 what he demanded) and we walked off.

— 3 —

Meeting people on the road.

Can be tough, especially for shy people (yes, my natural state is shy. I don’t like disturbing other people) and in countries with cheep hotel rooms. The shy bit is self explanatory, but the cheap hotel bit took me by surprise. In countries where travel is less expensive you are less likely to find hostels and dorms. Not only do you share rooms in hostels, but you meet other tourists in the common areas. This provides plenty of opportunity to meet people, make plans together, and get advice. If you have a single room with an attached bath and no comfy common area or kitchen just bumping into people can prove difficult. I’ve been told that you can meet other travelers in bars, but I’ve never been much of a bar person.

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Preserving culture while monopolizing on selling your culture.

What some call cultural appropriation has always sold well. People love incorporating the pretty and unusual customs and looks from other cultures into their lives. This trend is quite obvious in India, where Saris, Ali-baba pants, and statues of Ganesha are only a few of the things that are ferociously marketed to foreigners. I like to learn about other cultures and do as the Romans do as respectfully as possible. I also prefer understated simple designs and solid colors, which is why the apparent mechanism of cultural preservation I see stands out to me most glaringly.

The people of India wear bright and colorful clothing, but it is not the clothing the tourist shops sell. The cut is very similar and sometimes the material the same, but the patterns and the style are different. When I have enquired about getting a solid color or a light plain design light like all the locals wore in Sri Lanka I always got the response “No, we do not sell that.” It may be my imagination, but it seems like this is some sort of defense mechanism. The idea being that they will sell caricatures of local dress (sarongs, kurtas, etc.) to foreigners and in that way save their heritage. Encouraging the fake cultural appropriation while ensuring it is different from their heritage. Then again it might simply be that this is what they think foreigners want. I can’t tell for sure.

— 5 —

The shopping extremes in Mumbai and what they lack.

In Mumbai and many places in India you get all shopping extremes, from street vendor, to bazaar, to mega malls. I like to visit all of the above because they all give a piece of the cultural puzzle. On one side you find clues bout the past, on the other the future, and in both how the two are linked.

The authentic markets are stripped of traditional clothing. They get the same shirts and pants as we do, though the size markings are different and the quality isn’t as good. It seems that whenever companies make mistakes or a production technique doesn’t work well, those items get sent to market on this side of the pacific. In fact the terms export quality and non-export quality are in common use. On the flip side you will still find items for traditional cooking and cleaning. The traditional broom is made from a hard grass and acts as both broom and rake. I still don’t know how the traditional cookware is used, but it is everywhere. There are also a plethora of stalls selling cheep memory cards, cell phones, and accessories, but from both word on the street and personal experience these work less often than more.

The malls are extreme. There is nowhere that the disparity of wealth in India is more apparent. All the brand name fifth avenue stores that I could never afford were in the mall I visited and their prices were certainly no less than their counterparts in the USA. Rich Indians know how to dress well. One store I didn’t expect was a comedy club, that made me chuckle.

Despite the rich offerings there were two gaps in the wares available that left me scratching my head. There were no mainstream electronic stores (or any electronic stores) or athletic or outdoor apparel shops. This has been my experience throughout the Indian subcontinent. I was able to find a Nokia store and a Samsung store outside the mall proper, but in this gadget crazy age there are no big, reliable, consumer electronics chains. I would pay a pretty penny for a Besy Buy. I also would really like another tech t-shirt, but that doesn’t look promising any time soon.

— 6 —

Replacing my smartphone

My trusty Nexus 4 has been less than trusty of late. Sometimes it has barely worked and other times it acts as if a small child is constantly playing with the touch screen. As these problems have gotten worse, more frequent, and since the cell phone camera is broken, I decided to put forth the expense to replace it.

I decided to replace it with a Samsung Galaxy A5 because of availability, reputation, and the camera, but that’s not the point of this post. Aside from the difficulties in finding what appeared to be a reputable electronics store (see take 5) there are several more interesting hurdles to its use. The first was that almost all the smartphones have gone to a nano-SIM card. Seeing how large the phones are compared to the tiny micro-SIM I see no reason for this. Of course the major source of consternation is that my old phone has a micro-SIM, so getting a replacement from T-Mobile will require recruiting help from a few people and international mail. However, even if I had a nano-SIM it would be of no use. While cell phones in India do not come locked, they are blocked for use only with an Indian SIM card until 5 minutes of calls have been placed with an Indian SIM. It’s an interesting mechanism to prevent their export.

Many of you might be unaware that getting a SIM card is more difficult in India than it is in other countries. In order to buy a local SIM card, a foreigner needs to provide a passport photo and a photo copy of both their passport ID page and the visa page. Then after security checks are done (1-2 days) the SIM can be activated. In sharp contrast I was handed a SIM card upon arrival in Sri Lanka.

— 7 —

The cost of a cuppa in India.

A cup of authentic chai in rural areas (or less wealthy areas in major cities) is between 7-10 Indian rupees (between $0.11 and $.16). For that you get a 6-8 oz strong, hot, milk tea in either a paper cup, glass cup, or stainless steel cup. If you are purchasing more than two cups you can get the tea ladled boiling hot into a plastic bag to transport to your office and pour into cups. If you are given the paper cup there will generally not be a trash bin. The culturally appropriate place to drop your used cup is on the ground.

If you go to an Indian tourist establishment the price increases to 40 Rs and if you go to an establishment for foreigners you pay around 100-140 Rs ($1.60-2.25) for anything from a small cup to a pot with two mugs worth. You never really know until it turns up to the table, even if it’s a place you visited yesterday.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

3 thoughts on “7 Quick Takes on Indian Travel

  1. Sheldon

    I like your format, I have a galaxy 5 and like it,. As far as making prearranged travel , I don’t usually do that either except for the initial arrival so I know I have a place to stay. I also enjoyed going into the local areas. Keep up the adventure and update your blog…. And more pics please! Stay safe and enjoy!

  2. Kelly M.

    Thanks for joining the Link Up Craig! I loved the Takes. My mom traveled to India for work several times and always came back with the most interesting stories about the people and cultural differences. I remember she had a fun time purchasing rugs in Mumbai.

  3. Lindsay

    Thanks for the shout-out, friend! I hate traveling alone; I could never do your sort of world tour. I’ve never really thought about meeting people while traveling because I am either alone (and prefer not to make friends in a random place) or with people I already know well (classmates or students). It’s interesting that cheaper hotels would lead to fewer opportunities for ad-hoc friendships.

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