God knows enough has been said about the Bangalore traffic. For those who are not from this part of the world, imagine 9 o’clock Harbor Freeway in LA, and then take away the lane discipline. Throw in some crazy bikers, women in fluttering bright candyfloss cloth weaving through every crack in the traffic, and you will begin to imagine the experience. What has backpacking to do with traffic? Let’s take a look at ‘causality’ – someone said, “you do not need a reason to travel. Just pick your bag and leave.” Well that is a lot of hogwash in my opinion! Everything has a cause. The need for a break, a pick-your-bag-and-go syndrome steps in quite strongly after a particularly harrowing experience in the traffic. Hence came the need to travel almost immediately. The fact that I deal with the said industry did not hurt either. Alternatively, the symphony through the headphones would have been enough to calm the nerves. Not for me. Travel has seeped into the blood stream. But casual travel needs green paper and too much planning. On a random day, you really just want to pick your bags and travel. Hence backpacking.
How is backpacking different
Usually, there is the entry and exit point fixed, there is a backpack (obviously), a guidebook or two in it, some amount of cash, probably a map, not a very set itinerary, and a lot of travel thirst. The question which one usually asks first is ‘why backpack?’ But I believe the more important question is ‘how backpack?’ Let me put it this way – apart from the fact of not having enough disposable cash, your choice to backpack might not be seen as normal thing to do with the family and friends. They usual responses are that it’s crazy, it’s not safe, and as Lorenzo Gonzalez puts it, “who goes backpacking other than ‘white people’?” Whatever your reasons to go on such a trip, it is inconsequential and most likely made while you were couch surfing, watching a show on the television, reading a book, or recovering from a nervous breakdown. But the decision is anyhow made. Internet access becomes quite important, tickets are usually bought by standing in the queue, exchanges happen more in cash than through cards, rooms are shared with other travelers, streetfood forms the staple diet, and in some cases, bus-rooftop and camel-back transport are found to be regular features.
How different is backpacking in India
Now that is a different case altogether. Like many other things, the rules are different here. And sometimes, that means no rules at all. There is the aspect of food, of safety, of basic connectivity, the culture of hostels (or the absence of it), even the ‘thing’ of race (I really did not want to use the term ‘issue’). And then I am sure, there are many more. That’s what this post is about.
About the food
Yes, Indian cuisine is doing the battles all over the world and from what I hear, see and smell, it is not doing too badly. But what about the picture outside of the avant-garde restaurants? Food is something which can be both the easy as well as the difficult part here. That depending where you are from. The cuisine can drastically change depending on the time of the day, even within the same street. So if you found something that suits your stomach in the morning, don’t expect to hear it again in the evening (in the quick incantation which often happen to replace the printed menus). You will find century old cafes, modern chain outlets, small hole-in-the-corner-wall eateries playing a riot of tastes on you. Carry digestives, do not overeat and drink lots of water. The cuisine will also change drastically from one state to the other, and sometimes, within a span of just a hundred kilometers. One thing that’s given is that though we might have some problems fixing the mouth-to-food ratio in the country, you might not notice it upfront. It’s like you are walking into one large foodstreet. Once off the superhighways, you will not have any problem spotting eateries at hand. Hygiene is often questioned, and correctly so. However, if you cannot spot something outwardly ghoulish, they are more or less safe. Food usually sell out pretty fast in our country so they usually do not get to sell stale stuff. Careful about the water, though.
About the loo
This part will not go down too well. Public toilet systems are in complete apathy in India. Unless you are in an airport, a multiplex, a shopping mall or an upscale restaurant. And that too, from my experience, is not a uniform statement. You can see street walls painted with various religious symbols and idols along with warnings against relieving oneself there. The hope is that no one would want to do the deed with his maker looking right down upon him. The statement written on the walls are usually with various degrees of finesse in the English language and some can be pretty hilarious. When it comes to economy hotels, chances will be that you might not find a spotless loo. Do not expect bright and fluffy towels (if you do get towels at all). To keep the rednecks happy, there are exceptions.
About the Hostel culture (or rather the lack of it)
Now the hostel culture is not too big in India yet. However, you will find numerous budget hotels. The cleanliness and the comfort level is of question no doubt. But there are much better alternatives these days. Homestays are slowly coming up, so are sublets and nature camps. Airbnb has started featuring some of the bigger cities and so has Hostelworld.
The facilities one comes to expect from the hostels in UK, some parts of US or even in some pockets of Asia like Singapore, Malaysia are seldom found here for the same price tags. Wifi for one is scarce. Parking spaces are almost non-existent, so is access to hot water. Mind you, I am talking about shoestring, frugal travel here. Dormitories can be found, but are usually not the most preferred. Other options which are really mushrooming these days are plantation houses and farmstays.
Why backpack in India and where to go
India has it all – be it its tenacious touts or the crazy crush of mechanical as well as human traffic, absolutely stunning natural vistas, solitude, and mix of other experiences that no other destination can offer. Do not let the petulant first impressions take away the bright points of the country. This is one nation which is truly multidimensional. Take time to scratch below the gritty surface and what you’ll find are glittering gems — beautiful ancient monuments, a myriad of performing-arts scenes, some of the subcontinent’s most loved eateries, adventure environs that can give any place a run for their money. But what attracts most is the guarantee that it will be a life-changing experience.
It’s easy to list out at least five major cities or tourist destinations in the country. But are they the best places to backpack in the country? Perhaps not. It completely depends on your take of it. I guess, for many, the destination is the focal point. But for the rest of us where experiences are more important than the destination, picking a place is not that important.
Do I choose the fantastic harmony beneath the chaos of Kolkata (read Kolkata on foot), the hypnotic pull that everyone seems to be speaking about for Mumbai? Do I hit the once hippie spots of Goa? But then, I would really not be backpacking – it would be just any other frugal trip.
From what I have seen, in our country, it is much easier to backpack along the offbeat lanes. Or at least away from the big cities. I found it much easier to have a chat, explain myself, and turn in for the night at the home of a camel owner from Khuri, Rajasthan, than to find a clean room for the amount I was aiming at, in Dadar, Mumbai.
For the true experience, head off to trails rather than destinations. Start off from Delhi,
meander through Shimla, catch hold of the local buses from Jammu, onward to Katra, stop midway to be frisked by the security, camp overnight with the locals in Tiger Hill, speculate at Magnetic Hill, meditate in Pangong Tso. Catch a local bus carrying the day’s groceries from Shillong to the wettest place on earth, Cherrapunji.
Head over to the coffee plantations of Coorg, stay over at maybe the Honey Valley in Yavakapady Village, perched atop what perhaps what is the most complicated ascent of Mount Tadiandamol, or lose yourself at the Hermitage Guesthouse in Nersa Village. There, listen to David’s (the owner) tales of how he built his eco-resort by baking his own bricks and laying them down by himself. Take a dip in the uphill environs of the Mandovi river, over conversations on sustainable development with a red faced but very gentle German fellow traveler. That’s how I backpacked and that’s how I understand it.
Travel in our country is still predominantly a family and male dominated thing-to-do. Although solo women travelers are quickly joining in (read Solo women traveling and insights from a lady travel bug). There is the ‘thing’ about race that I had previously mentioned. We totally love foreigners. Not so much ourselves. If you are a westerner planning to backpack in India, let me assure you, you will have a great time – if you are not too much affected by our way with colours, loudness, and other things that make, what we now call culture. But on the hospitality part, I am pretty sure you will have little to complain about.