Want to have an incredible trip to India? When I went on an important work trip to the subcontinent in September, my dear friend Deb decided to join me the adventure – which coincided with the worst monsoon season India has seen in a decade.
Anyone can have fun in stellar conditions, but have you got what it takes to thrive in hell and high water? Here are our counter-intuitive recommendations for staying afloat:
- Have your wallet stolen in the parking area of the Delhi airport a half-hour after landing in India. This is an auspicious way to start any trip and pretty much assures that you will stay below budget throughout the entire experience. Since I was simultaneously on a work mission, my fantastic employer quickly wired me some funds and had, thankfully, prepaid for all the hotels. The best news is that I had my passport in a separate pocket of my messenger bag. Always keep your passport separate from your money! Keep a credit card in a separate location, too!
- Stay at the best hotels for the shortest amount of time. If you stay in the best places for the longest amount of time, you will grow soft and weak. Deb and I stayed at the glorious, elegant Trident hotel in Agra for less than five hours and the St. Regis in Mumbai for 15 hours. Conversely, we stayed at the Ummed Hotel in Ahmadabad for 36 hours and the Courtyard in Jaipur for 24 hours. Thanks to this un-planned yet brilliant strategy, we were able to withstand more discomfort than the average American tourist. By the way, we hardly saw any other American tourists because no one in their right mind goes to India in the peak of Monsoon season.
- Repeat the phrase, “We’re really in it now!” whenever things get crazy. And when that motto grows tiresome, switch to saying, “We’ve really done it this time!” Avoid phrases like “I hate everything and everyone” or “God help us” as they are not actually helpful. Praying isn’t recommended either, because there are over a million Hindu gods and you just don’t have the time to reach all of them, especially when you are busy trying to preserve your own life and sanity while taking in the flooded sights and avoiding water-borne disease.
- Bicker, congenially, over the frequency of reapplications of divergent mosquito repellent. Key to surviving your monsoon vacation in India is avoiding life-threatening, vector-borne diseases that increase in likelihood during extreme rains. I hovered over Deb’s application of repellent in a way that probably drove her to the brink of sanity. She’d apply her organic supply, then I’d pounce on her — without warning — with sprays from my high-powered toxic Deet.
- Never go to the Taj Mahal with your spouse. Most people think the Taj Mahal is the most romantic place in the world. It may be, but that doesn’t mean you have to go with your spouse or partner. Visiting the Taj — in 120-degree heat in a city of extreme poverty — is more likely to break your heart than make you feel sexy.
- Eat carbs galore. Paramount to surviving India is not eating everything you see. I realize Bourdain would tell you otherwise, but if you want to get out of India without “Delhi belly” or food poisoning or Typhoid or Cholera in rainy season, then do this: brush your teeth with bottled water only; don’t let uncooked fruit or veggies near your mouth; and, don’t eat meat. Bottom line? Only imbibe cooked carbs. The side effect of this all-carb approach is that you will be constipated instead of having diarrhea. Also, you will be remarkably bloated, so in the event of a water landing or being swept away by the floods, you can serve as your very own flotation device.
- Fly low-cost domestic carriers. In-country airlines, like Go Air and Indigo Air, will fly in anything. Deb and I know this because we did it — three times! While all the American carriers were canceling their international flights in and out of Mumbai, Deb and I were bouncing around the local skies in cheap seats. We had a landing in Ahmadabad that was more like riding a mechanical bull in a bar or being a bull in a china shop. Or both.
- Visit Ahmadabad no matter what. I have mentioned the name of this city twice thus far but it bears even more repeating. Ahmadabad. Ahmadabad. Ahmadabad. Hard to say but fun to see! Not very many people visit Ahmadabad these days, but this is where Gandhi plotted India’s entire non-violent revolution from his Ashram – a place that gave me goosebumps even though the “feels like” temp that day was 138-degrees! The big takeaway from here is that your life is your message. Thanks, Gandhi. And Ahmadabad.
- See Dhobi Ghat — where Mumbai’s 23 million people get their laundry washed, dried and ironed. It’s a sprawling maze of aqua-ducts, naked children, and clothing lines that sits in stark contrast to Mumbai’s shimmering skyline. Dhobi Ghat serves a greater purpose than producing clean clothes, it provides jobs in a city burdened with overpopulation and unemployment. Dhobi Ghat is at once hopeless and hopeful. Simultaneously shocking and comforting. Perfectly clean and completely dirty. Highly industrious and somewhat insidious. As far as I’m concerned, Dhobi Ghat coveys the inexplicable story of India. It also represents all the reasons I swear I’ll never come back to this country, but then look for ways to return as soon as I’m away.
- There is no number 10. What more you can say after Dhobi Ghat? Let’s give the last word to Gandhi from his days Ahmadabad: Be the change you want to see in the world. Doing so requires that you go out into the world – especially in the most difficult and uncertain conditions. Once you’re in it, you may realize that no one is actually winning the human race. The best we can do, on any given day, is ride a sneezing elephant with someone who helps you see and serve others.