India Primer Part 4: Travel and Arrival
By Rico Zook, Edited By Nina Osswald
This is in preparation, both physically and mentally, for your travel to the International Permaculture Convergence in India. You have your valid passport and visa, your money is sorted out, and everything is packed. [see Part II of this series for a link to my travel list and recommendations on what to pack] You have butterflies in your stomach and crickets in your nerves. And you are also relaxed, as you have prepared well with choosing what to bring, what to leave, what to be aware of, what are the possibilities, and what experiences, fun, learning, and adventures might lie ahead.
This is the most important thing you travel with. It impacts everything you do and experience. It is the key to the best possible trip, even when things go sideways. Your attitude actually becomes your most important tool when this happens. And you have total control over it, a rare thing overall in regards to traveling. What happens during your travels is an outcome of a multitude of ongoing interactions. How you feel about it and what you bring to the experience is up to you only.
Part of my travel attitude is that as long as I am where I need to be ahead of time, all is fine by me and I am chill. Just like life and all living things, travel is best done without any hurry. Trust that everything will work out, surrender to the process – without grasping for anything, without lust of a result. This general attitude can be described as engaged surrender, with a faith that I’ll eventually get to where I am going. This faith includes the trust that everyone assisting me along the way is doing their best within the restrictions and scope of their job, to get me where I am going. While things most often go fine, when they do not, I know as long as I am where I am suppose to be, have what I need, then eventually I’ll get where I am going. With this eventuality I might as well relax and enjoy whatever I can.
Do not mistake this for a passive attitude; rather, it is one of engaged acceptance. I actively do what I need to, be where I need to be, have my documents and any money (of correct currency) ready, and am polite. Always patient and ready to say what I need to say, and push gently, with respect, where I need too. And always enjoy whatever you can.
GETTING TO AIRPORT ON TIME
This is an obvious thing, and yet at times things conspire, or we simply misread something, and we find out at the airport that it we are late. This is not a feeling nor situation conducive to starting a trip on a good note. As when you booked your tickets, you recheck all relevant data prior to clicking the final payment button, a week or more prior to your departure revisit your tickets and confirm date, day, time and airport.
I always plan to arrive at the airport, train or bus station with enough time to relax and read a bit. For international travel they ask you to arrive two to three hours ahead of scheduled departure time. I say plan for three to four, depending on the commute and possible conditions getting to the airport. When a delay can add an hour or more to your travel time, a two hour lead time can slowly and excruciatingly become one or less. That makes me not relax so much. As I cannot say it enough, traveling is about patience. Have reading and viewing material in your satchel for the waiting that you inevitably will be doing.
BE SURE TO HAVE YOUR TICKETS, ETC.
You are at the airport. Now is not the time to check about your tickets, passport, etc. Do this the night before you leave. In fact, I recommend packing up at least a week ahead of time to check that everything has a place and you know where that place is. When packing, consider what will be needed when and pack accordingly. Be aware of fragile or breakable items when you pack.
If you followed my earlier advice on the travel list, you will be traveling with a pack and a satchel. This could be a suitcase and large purse or daypack, as per your preference. If your pack is small enough to be carry-on, a great thing if you can do it, then certain things of value can be carried in it. But remember a satchel is easier to hold and control than a pack or suitcase. In your satchel, which is always with you, you should carry all needed documentation for travel, all valuable items, as well as anything you will need upon landing and getting to and checking in at your accommodation. Do you have the address of the accommodation and important telephone numbers handy?
Do you know what the weather will be when you land? Colder than where you departed? Is there possibility of rain? You do not want to be searching your baggage out on the street. It is not uncommon for departure and arrival temperatures to be noticeably different. I like to have my jacket or hoodie with me when I fly. Hyderabad in later November is pleasant, with average daytime temperatures 82° Fahrenheit (28° C) and night average of 60°F (16° C).
GOING THROUGH SECURITY
Be aware that when passing through security you will be required to remove most electronics and certain other items from your satchel, so pack accordingly. Be aware that there is a limit to the amount of fluids you can carry onto the plane. Checked luggage has fewer restrictions. Check the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) list of restricted items for both carry-on and checked luggage.
What is required for removal from your carry-ons and person varies from time to time. Sometimes belt comes off, sometimes not. Sometimes shoes, sometimes not. So when you are in line approaching the screening part, check out what is being required at that time. Some general advice, wear pants that will stay up without a belt. I like to wear loose clothing, but have learned from experience that this can be difficult when I have to take of the belt for screening.
I believe all American airports now have a full body scanner. It is basically a rounded glass booth you step into that has two vertical bars (scanners) that rotate around you. This is what you stand in after emptying your pockets and as your carry-ons are scanned via the conveyer belt. There was some concern in the public about health and privacy, which TSA says is not to be worried about. Due to this concern, everyone has the choice of ‘Opting Out’. This means you do not go through the scanner; but rather, submit to a hand pat down. If you wish to do this, here is the basic process as I have experienced it.
When you are close enough to politely get the attention of the TSA person directing your line as it approaches the scanner, just let them know you would like to ‘opt out’. They will ask you to step out of line and to wait in a certain spot. They will then get a person of your sex to do the hand pat down. This person will ask you to step through a gate to the side of the scanner and direct you to stand in a certain place. They will ask you to ID your carry-ons on the conveyer belt, but to not touch them. The TSA person will get all your items off the conveyer belt and set them aside. Do not try to touch them at all. Your TSA person will then proceed to describe how they are going to pat you down. They are very polite about this and I have never had any problems or issues doing this. I actually prefer it as I get to chat with a person. After the pat down they will swab their gloves and test for residues. This is an immediate process. After you clear this they will tell you to get your carry-ons and continue to your flight.
If you are vegetarian, vegan, or have other dietary needs, you should have let the airlines know this when you booked your tickets. You can also do this later through the airline or travel agent’s website. Be aware that you can’t always rely on the airline’s catering providers to get these right, so check the ingredients of what you’re about to eat if it is a packaged product, and as the flight attendant if you’re unsure. It is also very advisable to always carry enough high-energy snacks to get you through your flights if the food turns out to be unpalatable to you.
SLEEP STRATEGIES and JET LAG
Jet Lag is different from being tired after a 4 hour jeep ride down the mountains to catch an overnight train to the city, where you take an hour taxi ride for your 35 hour flight with 2 layovers and another airport bus ride to your destination. I describe jet lag as a disorientation of the body-mind in the space-time continuum. That sounds a lot more interesting, or scary, than just saying that one’s biological clock and rhythms are out of sync with the light cycle they are attuned to. Most commonly this means not being able to sleep at night, and/or waking up in the middle of the night, and/or falling asleep during the day, and/or just feeling like you are in a waking dream.
After several years of international travel, with jet lag at times being strong, and others where I barely noticed it, a pattern seemed to emerge. I checked with other travelers to confirm or challenge my perception. They generally confirmed what I thought was happening, though the why is still up in the air, to use a pun.
Most people find that jet lag and its effects tend to be more pronounced and longer lasting when you fly westward compared to an easterly flight. The reason for this differing level of jet lag may be related to the actual light and dark cycles you would go through while in flight, with the westward flight potentially being just one very long continuous day, or night. An eastward flight will have you experience a shortened day and night cycle, which may be an easier disruption of the normal cycle for your system to adjust to. I do not know, but if this pattern has validity to it, it will help you plan for the first few days in country, or for your return home. There are also differing opinions about in flight strategies to minimize the impacts of jet lag. My strategy is a ‘stay wake until it is bedtime at my destination’ approach. This can be done in two ways. Mine is usually to stay awake until I am at my destination and it’s my sleep time according to that clock and light cycle. I still often get jet lag, but I figure my body will adjust the quickest with this strategy. The other way for this strategy is to sleep in route (during travel) based upon the time at your destination, e.g. you start resetting your body clock just prior to or during your travel there. If your layover is long enough you can get some good sleep during this. Just have absolute trust in your alarm (and your ability to wake up).
LAYOVERS AND CONNECTING FLIGHTS
It is very likely that your flight will have at least one layover. With most international flights this will be at the airport out of which the airline is based. This ‘Hub’ of the airline will be in its country of origin. Though I rarely choose my flight based the city of layover, at times it has been an influence.
When booking do be aware of how much time you will have between the flights, and if there is a switch of carrier. If you purchase your ticket via a booking website, it is imperative that you carefully look at these layovers. It is also not uncommon for the layover to include a change in airports, especially if it is a shift from international travel to domestic, as in when you arrive in country. This change in airports, while necessary at times, is a hassle that should be avoided if possible. I will readily pay extra for a ticket that prevents this shift in airports.
China Eastern, for instance, often run their passengers through China via a domestic flight. Twice I have landed in Kunming, had to go through immigration to get a 2 day transit visa, pick up my luggage, go to the domestic airport to board a domestic flight to Beijing or Shanghai, where I had to shift airports again to check-in and go through immigration and security to board my international flight. Sometimes it was worth it as the ticket was several hundred dollars cheaper then the next one; usually it is not.
The layovers and the shift of carriers common with tickets purchased through online booking sites is another very good reason to not use these, and instead purchase from the carrier itself. The continuity of flights with a single airline or with their associated airlines guarantees that if there are delays or disruptions, the carrier will be much more likely to offer compensation and/or immediate rebooking at no charge. This is unlikely to happen if your travel is on different carriers that a travel site patched together.
As with any wait in the airport, awareness of the time and listening to the announcements are essential. If you have a long time, getting out of the airport is tempting. This could mean going through immigration. So if you are thinking about this, check prior to departure about how doable this is. Many countries at their international airline’s hub airport will have some expedited or special visa for this type of short visit. Hong Kong airport actually has a city tour by bus it offers to long layover passengers. Again, while this short visit is an excellent bonus point type of add-on for your travel, you have to make sure the timing works well. It is more important to me that I have a relaxed layover, without the stress of making sure I am back on time for my next flight, than to squeeze in a bit of extra sightseeing.
This time awareness is also important within the airport. Many new airports have terminals that sprawl over hundreds of acres. A couple of times I was getting food from a preferred vendor on the opposite side of the airport and had to run to the other end as I heard the last call for boarding along with my name being announced.
You have arrived, on the ground, walking out of the plane and getting that first hit of Indian air. It will be an exhilarating moment, potentially a bit overwhelming. Relax and get use to it. Whatever you are feeling, it is likely to only get more intense as you make your way through the layers of arrival and out into the frenetic reality that is India. Remember to relax, breathe and observe.
Remember, India only has a limited and pre-registered Visa on Arrival process. If you have not pre-registered then you cannot get a visa on arrival. Thus, you better already have your visa. (see Part II for more information about visas)
You should have received the immigration form on the plane. If not, there will be a table with them just prior to Immigration. If you are getting the Visa on Arrival, there will be a separate line for this process.
You will pick up your baggage after Immigration. This is the area where I will access the toilet, as it may often be another hour to two before I get to my hotel or another destination. India does not have readily available public toilets. You will learn as you travel through India, especially if you are a woman, that it is best to access toilets, especially clean ones, when you have the opportunity.
This is the last layer of the official process to enter India. Be aware that there are two basic lines: Something to Declare and Nothing to Declare. Lately, I have had to put my baggage through a scanner similar to what they do at the security clearance point.
THE FINAL STEPS FOR ARRIVAL
After customs, you will walk out through a door or partition and into the lobby of the airport. Now you are almost in the full experience of India. Please be aware that if you walk out of the airport terminal itself you will not be able to go back in as that requires a ticket. So take a minute, look around and consider if there are things you need within the terminal prior to exiting.
Also, be aware that you may have people approach you about a taxi or hotel. Though terminal access is controlled, there will at times still be people trying to get you into a taxi or a hotel they have a kickback arranged with. And do not believe them if they say that the prepaid taxi booth is closed, or the airport bus is not running. This may be true, and it is just as likely not.
The ideal situation if you are arriving in India for the first time is to have someone meet you. This is not always possible, and you will be fine without a friend. It is just a nicer and more relaxed entry if there is.
(Prices given in these installments are estimates. India’s economy is rapidly growing. This, along with international economic pressures, is causing prices to rise, sometimes quickly.)
You will need some cash in Rupees for the bus or taxi and for checking into your hotel. The best way is to find an ATM at the airport and take out a few thousand Rupees directly. If you are going to exchange cash at the airport, check the exchange rate beforehand so you have an idea of what you should be getting. The official market rate is not what you will get, as the moneychanger needs to earn a profit. A good rate for you will be 1 to 1.5 Rupees (Rs.) below the market rate; an acceptable rate for me is anything above 2 Rupees below market rate.
The rate you will get at the airport will be fixed, i.e. you will not be able to bargain. On the street (meaning at a forex shop) at times I have been able to bargain for a better rate, especially if I do a larger amount (say $200 instead of $100).
Also ask if there is an added charge for the exchange. Often more ‘official’ moneychangers, Thomas Cook or a bank, will levy a surcharge of rs.100 or more. It is usually a flat rate, so exchanging more at that time gives you a better deal, if the actual exchange rate is a good one.
In general, be careful with your money and exchange only enough to get to the hotel and for a few days afterwards.
WALKING OUT OF THE AIRPORT
Welcome to India! The noise, the smells, the bustle, the hawkers. Now is the time you might get a bit overwhelmed. So best to take a good breath prior to walking out, and have a plan for where you are going and what you will be doing. Because as you walk out men will approach asking if you need a taxi or a hotel. And they can be very persistent. My recommendation is to not engage with these folks. I do at times when I need transportation and there is no prepaid taxi; however, I do have some experience with this. These people do not take no very readily. If you are not interested it is best to simply act like you know where you are going, act like you do this every day, and give a firm no. If you are looking for something and cannot find it (say the bus stop) you can try asking them, but be ready for a “closed today”, or a “that is not here” reply. Again, maybe true, just as likely not true. And quite often they will point you to where you need to go. As with everything in India, I try to have a light attitude and a sense of humour.
*Photos by Nina Osswald