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8 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before I Went to India

September 17, 2015

(Photo: Thinkstock)

After more than a decade running celebrity weekly magazines in New York City I found myself jobless, unsure what to do next and with a chunk of time to actually travel somewhere, not just vacation, but truly travel.

I could have just stayed in New York—unemployed, anxiety-ridden, and buried underneath four feet of snow or I could hit pause on my professional life, challenge myself and travel somewhere completely alien to me. India beckoned as somewhere exotic and yet affordable.

Leaving Kim Kardashian’s behind very far behind me, I traveled from chaotic Delhi across the beautiful desert cities of Rajasthan to vibrant Mumbai and then onto the dreamy beaches of Goa.

I had the trip of a lifetime, but things could have gone smoother along the way. Here is what I wish someone had told me before I left.

The tropical paradise of Goa. (Photo: Thinkstock)

1. Pack light. Then pack lighter.

Fill your suitcase with everything you think you need. Now take everything out and reduce it by half. Now do it again. I didn’t need three pairs of shorts or 10 tops since I could wash everything I brought with me for 200 rupees ($3.50). Bring a collapsible bag to fill with all of your travel swag (I bought my sarongs where Judi Dench picked up hers!). My packing advice: Bring five tops, one pair of shorts, five pairs of underwear, one pair of shoes, and one pair of flip flops, and one swanky outfit for going out in Mumbai. DO bring your favorite shirt/dress/trousers. It costs around $15 to get your favorite clothes replicated in whatever fabrics you like. Nowhere in the world can you get bespoke tailoring at such a price. I went crazy and got seven tailored shirts made to the template of my best Acne shirt.

Dame Judy was here! (Photo: Dan Wakeford)

2. Don’t eat at quiet restaurants.

I made this mistake at a canteen in Jaipur and suffered with what felt like hot tea leaving my backside two hours later. Warning: all travelers in India end up talking about what happens to them in the bathroom the way people in Los Angeles talk about how bad the traffic is.

No foot traffic in a restaurant means a low turnover of food, so they may be serving you leftovers. It can be sensible to eat as a vegetarian until you get close to the beaches where you can enjoy the fresh sumptuous seafood. If you do get Delhi Belly, a banana shake is the best local remedy for settling your stomach.

3. Take a train.

Not all trains are quite as romantic as the one on the Darjeeling Express, but you should still grab a cabin on an overnight change. Sheets are clean, and you can buy water on the train, but it’s best to take your own food. It was on a train from Udaipur that I met some Argentinean sisters (a lawyer and an accountant), who ended up being my companions for the next few days. We looked after each other, the lawyer helped me negotiate in shops, and the accountant checked our food bills at restaurants. I provided the entertainment by belting out Adele while refreshing our (sadly, warm) Kingfisher beer.

Not all trains are like the Darjeeling Express, but an overnight cabin is still the way to travel. (Photo: Thinkstock)

4. Don’t go anywhere without your hotel’s business card.

Not all taxi and tuk-tuk drivers speak English, so to get back to your hotel it is easiest just to hand the driver the hotel’s card. This mistake had me worrying if I was going to have to sleep on the streets of Mumbai one night.

Be sure to bring your hotel’s card with the address for your driver. (Photo: Daniel Peckham)

5. Don’t be afraid to haggle.

This isn’t Bloomingdales—you have to haggle and can usually get anything for half the starting price, whether it’s the price of a taxi (ask before you get in), a tour guide’s services, or an emerald ring. I thought I scored a bargain securing two copper pots in Pushkar for $30, but they should have been half that price … I also bought a marble paperweight sphere for 2000 rupees ($35) and saw a similar one later for 750. Doh.

The author grabbed this gorgeous pillow at the Pushka market. Naturally, he overpaid. (Photo: Dan Wakeford)

6. Do stay in an Indian’s home.

Homestays are a wonderful way to experience India. Favorites of mine were the super friendly Saket Bed and Breakfast in Delhi. The owner made arriving in one of the craziest cities in the world as calming as possible, sitting down with me to plan my itinerary. Another family welcomed me at the Bansai Homestay in Agra, where I sat and chatted for hours with the extended family over an amazing curried potato and pancake breakfast.

7. Put yourself on Indian time.

Indians live closer to the sun cycle than we do. They get up early and go to bed early. Hotel check-out is at 10 a.m. and most bars close at11.30 p.m.

8. If you’re feeling overwhelmed (and I was) use a travel agency.

You aren’t a failure if you are struggling to come up with an itinerary. It is fine to get support from an expert. Agencies like the reliable and tasteful India Someday will curate your trip and book everything for you for a fee of $100. Abbas at India Someday organized the first half of my trip and was invaluable helping me get used to Indian ways and available for assistance by phone or email at anytime.

Dan Wakeford is a publishing executive who has edited some of the largest women’s magazines in America, including Life & Style Weekly and In Touch. He has interviewed the likes of Julia Roberts and Simon Cowell and is partly to blame for the success of the Kardashians (forgive him!). Dan is English, so he relishes his vacations ,which usually range from lazing on the beaches of Tulum and Costa Rica to exploring, shopping, and eating in the best European cities.