Exploring the subcontinent on a shoestring takes a great deal of open-mindedness, adaptability and stamina. It puts you on the level of the local folks, giving you the opportunity to connect with the culture in a way that staying at five-stars does not. On the down side, unless you are living with a family or take refuge at an ashram, you may be at the mercy of food stalls with compromised hygiene practices and guesthouses that provide less than comfortable accomodations.
Some of the amenities that we are accustom to, like electricity for example, cannot be taken for granted. The idea of this may seem quaint or adventurous at first, until you are sleeping at a cheap guest house and in the middle of the night there is a power outage and you realize that your ceiling fan, which was keeping the mosquitoes grounded and your sweat cool, stops working. You learn that sometimes it’s worth spending the extra rupees for a place with a backup generator.
The trick to packing for developing countries is to think of it as a long camping trip. For an extended trip, packing light is key, but it is important not to skimp on some vital health and comfort items. A medium sized backpack or luggage on wheels is sufficient. If you are moving around a lot, wait until the end of your trip to stock up on gifts and Indian treasures, then get a huge duffel bag and go to town.
Without regret, most of the weight in our pack is from a stockpile of natural medicines. Dysentery can be a real buzz-kill for your travel itinerary. But, if you can stay comfortable and in good health, your journey can be the adventure of a lifetime. Here is what we have found to be some of the essentials for an enjoyable 3 to 6 month very low-budget experience in India and Nepal.
CLOTHES – In general, the clothing you take should be sturdy, dark enough to mask the dirt, and attire you enjoy enough to live in day after day. Wearing modest, non-revealing clothes can earn you considerable respect and spare you stares, hassles or worse. Keep in mind that you may want to purchase some traditional Indian garments, so don’t take too much. Even if you plan to don the local apparel, if you are there long enough, at some point you will long to wear your favorite t-shirt, so take it. If you limit yourself to two or three sets of clothes, you can wear one while washing and drying the others.
COMFORTABLE WALKING SHOES OR SANDALS
FLIP-FLOPS – The perfect footwear in a country where you remove your shoes before entering homes, temples and many businesses. A must for funky shower stalls. You can buy a pair of cheap flip-flops upon arrival.
HAT – For sun protection or to keep your head warm depending on where and what time of year you are traveling.
DOWN VEST -This can save your life in the Himalayas and can cinch up to the size of a softball when you are on the plains.
TOWEL – As any fan of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy knows, a seasoned traveler always knows where his or her towel is. Indians also have a pragmatic imagination when it comes to towels, or gamcchas. Its uses are seemingly endless: you can tie it around your head as a turbine, around your neck as a scarf or around your waist as a skirt or lungi. You can use it as a shawl to keep warm, use it as a sheet to lie on or as a blanket to lie under. It can be used as a satchel to carry groceries or a baby. You can cover you nose and mouth to filter out the thick, black exhaust when traveling through traffic in open vehicles. You can use it as a hankie or to wipe off your sweat, your seat, a messy table or fresh cow shit off your feet. And, if it is reasonably unsoiled, you can even dry off your clean body after a bucket shower. Indian towels are thin and inexpensive, so get a few.
DAY PACK - For short excursions or as a purse to keep the necessities on hand. You can also buy a jhola, or Indian shoulder bag, while you are there.
LETTERS OF INTRODUCTION from friends – A formality that is good to have if you are spending time at an ashram or with a family you have never met.
Lonely Planet Guidebook – A rich source of practical information for travelers. This is a heavy item, but you can cut down the weight by photocopying or ripping out the necessary pages.
MONEY BELT – To secure your passport, cash, traveler’s checks and plane tickets. Fasten it around your waist and tuck it under your clothes. Keep a smaller amount of spending rupees in a separate wallet or purse.
PASSPORT – It is an enormous hassle if you lose it. Keep it in your money belt.
VISA – This must be arranged in advance from the Indian embassy. Some regions of India require additional visas. You can obtain a Nepal Visa upon arrival in the Kathmandu airport.
TRAVELER’S CHECKS – A wise form of currency in an unpredictable country.
CASH – It is always helpful to have some cash when you cannot find a place to exchange travelers checks. US $100 bills are practically universal. If you are traveling in smaller villages, however, change money before you get there and have a supply of small denomination rupee notes.
GIFTS FOR CHILDREN – Have a supply of pencils or pens on hand as practical gifts for the children you encounter. We found that buying peanuts and fruit to give to begging children is better than giving them rupees, which may end up in someone else’s pocket. We also took over two huge duffel bags of donated children’s clothing, school and art supplies and educational games for a school and orphanage in Nepal.
PHOTOS FROM HOME – Have a few photos of family, friends and home to share with curious new friends.
HAND SANITIZER – Purell or other alcohol-based germ killers are indispensable in a country where you feel like everything you touch is dirty and soap is not found next to every sink.
WATER BOTTLE – The stainless steel varieties like Kleen Kanteen are indestructible and can hold hot liquids without leaching toxins from the plastic.
WATER FILTER- Can protect you from countless waterborne bacteria and viruses without leaving a trail of plastic water bottles that end up getting burned in piles outside you hotel window. We highly recommend the First Need filter.
SPARE FILTER – If you are on an extended trip
UNIVERSAL DRAIN COVER – This thin, round, flat piece of rubber can turn any sink into a laundry tub or a water source to filter water out of.
MOSQUITO NET – If you are in a mosquito zone, it can mean the difference between sound sleep or malaria.
MOSQUITO REPELLANT – We like the natural herbal stuff, but so do those Indian mosquitoes. Get something strong that works.
SPARE GLASSES – A spare pair of glasses or contacts is essential if you cannot do without. You can also get glasses made quite inexpensively in Indian cities.
SWISS ARMY KNIFE – For cutting fruit and a million other uses.
FLASHLIGHT- Crucial in a country with frequent power outages.
LIGHTER – For incense, candles or when you can’t find your flashlight. Much safer and reliable than Indian matches.
EARPLUGS – Sleep through the predawn loudspeaker call to prayer, city street noise or communal train voyages.
WATCH/ALARM – Indian time is fluid at best, but the trains are often on time.
SLEEPING BAG – The kind that scrunches down in a small stuff sack. Useful on trains and budget guesthouses where clean bedding is not guaranteed.
LOCK AND SMALL CHAIN – To secure your luggage on overnight 2nd class sleeper train rides or on top of buses.
CLOTHESLINE – To dry your laundry, string it up around your room and turn on your ceiling fan or use on a balcony or rooftop.
DENTAL FLOSS – Easier to find here than there and essential after eating Indian sweets.
DEODARANT – Again, easier to find here than there.
TOOTHPASTE – There are great Ayurvedic toothpastes available in India, but if you have one you like, get it at home.
Tooth brush, Razor, Bandaids, Finger nail clippers, Safety pins, Zip-lock plastic bags
Q-TIPS – To apply ointments or mine crud out of your ear canals. You may choose to leave the ear cleaning up to the traditional ear cleaners who have been practicing their trade for generations. You can spot them at train stations or city streets with surgical instrument-looking devises jutting out from under their red caps. No joke.
DIGITAL CAMERA – Unless you are hooked on film, we found it less cumbersome and easier when going through multiple airports x-ray machines to use digital. You can use an iPod to easily download your photos in the field.
iPod – Great for long train rides. With a light, mini-speaker system you can create peaceful ambiance in your room. Also use to store digital photos.
ELECTRIC PLUG CONVERTER – India has different outlets and voltage so this is critical if you are taking electronic devices.
RECHARGEABLE BATTERIES/CHARGER – For flashlight, camera, etc.
MULT-VITAMIN – Even if, like us, you usually do not rely on pills for nourishment, a supplement can help provide sustenance in times when it is hard to find safe, wholesome food.
Emergen-C – Powder supplement you mix with water to make a yummy, fizzy drink filled with vitamin C, minerals, electrolytes and B vitamins. Great for an energy boost or dehydration.
GINGER CAPSULES – For nausea, motion sickness, colds, flu and to aid digestion.
ACIDOPHILUS – This or other probiotic bacteria is invaluable for building up your intestinal flora for improved digestion and to combat unwanted intestinal invaders. Get the temperature stable variety and take it daily, even before your trip. Having a regular dose of yogurt, or dahi as they call it, can also provide healthy intestinal growth.
CURING PILLS – This Traditional Chinese Medicine formula is a remedy for nausea, indigestion, vomiting, acid reflux and food poisoning.
GRAPEFRUIT SEED EXTRACT – Multi-purpose strong medicine that helps zap amoebas and parasites.
ACTIVATED CHARCOAL CAPSULES – For food poisoning. Have a few on hand just in case. Burnt toast works also.
DIARRHEA MEDICINE – Although we personally prefer natural medicines, it is a good idea to have some Imodium (loperimide, HCl) on hand to stop the flow on a long bus ride or when prolonged diarrhea and dehydration becomes a risk.
ECHINACEA– An immune boosting root that helps when you feel like you’re coming down with cold or flu.
HOMEOPATHICS – Light weight medicines like Arnica montana for muscle trauma and pain, Carbo veg. for digestive problems and Nux vomica for nausea and upset stomach, Oscillococcinum for first sign of cold or flu, to name a few.
TEA TREE OIL – Although not actually from the tea tree, this camphor-esque smelling oil has antiseptic and anti-fungal properties. We use it primarily to keep cuts from becoming infected but is also useful for insect bites, pimples, fungal growths and oral infections. In India you can also purchase Neem oil, which has similar uses and is even more foul smelling.
THROAT LOZENGES – Pollution makes for scratchy throats. If you run out, I recommend the Himalaya brand herbal Koflet lozenges available in India.
PAIN KILLERS – Take your pick.
SHAWL – A Pashmina shawl, or chudder, is your best friend in a cold climate.
WATER HEATING COIL – Plug it in and submerge coil in a bucket of water for a hot bucket shower. Very dangerous – use with caution.
SOAP - There are an assortment of Ayurvedic soaps available in India.
CHYAVANA PRASH – A medicinal herbal jam chock full of vitamin C from amla fruit and an array of plant medicines for immunity, lungs and general health.
AMOEBICA – This Ayurvedic formula helps keep amoebic dysentery at bay.
Liv52 – A liver cleansing formula that can help clear toxins taken in from food, water and air. Good preventative for viral hepatitis.
Again, these are suggestions for a low-budget, roughing-it-in-style type of travel. You could also travel minimalist, sadhu-style with your water vessel, toothbrush, passport and a lot of faith. Or, if you are only going for a short visit and have a bigger budget, you can take whatever you want and just hire someone to carry your luggage.