Photo by Laertes

Never since I first decided to go traveling did telling people, “I’m going to India for four months,” stir up so many words of caution and advice.

AFTER A FEW WEEKS, I started to feel like I was setting off for some unknown planet, not just to another corner of our world. As my trusty backpack grew heavier by the day with supplies, I had no way of knowing what was really necessary and what was simply taking up space.

Now that I’m back, I’ve got a better idea. If, after applying for your visa, sorting out immunizations, and starting malaria pills (or not), you’re still unsure of what else to bring on your first time around the glorious Subcontinent, here’s what helped me.

On a train

If you’re a backpacker and are planning to see a lot of India, chances are you’ll get to know the rail network’s sleeper class pretty well. Although the carriage layout is identical to A/C third class, with each compartment featuring eight berths, sleeper class windows are open to the elements and tend to be a little less supervised by guards. For both safety and comfort, you might want to bring:

Photo by seeveeaar

  • Lock and chain: If the thought of spooning your backpack all night isn’t quite so attractive, a product like this Master Lock 4-foot combination bike chain is perfect for keeping it safe while you sleep. Weave the chain through a few straps and loops of your bags before securing them to your berth.
  • Inflatable travel pillow 3-piece set: This kit comes with a blow-up neck pillow, sleep mask and ear plugs. On a whim, I picked one up in a London pharmacy for £3 just before leaving for India, having no idea how useful it would prove to be. The pillow can be inflated on the journey, but doesn’t take up unnecessary space in your backpack during the day. Use the mask when overhead lights aren’t cut off at night, and the ear plugs for when your chatty fellow passengers rise early.
  • Large scarf/shawl or travel sheet: The major difference often pointed out between A/C and sleeper class is the lack of air conditioning in the latter. But once tucked away in your upper berth, you might be surprised at how cool it can get at night with ceiling fans on high power.
In a guesthouse

If budget travel around regions such as Europe, South America and Australasia has you accustomed to bunking up in dorms, the lack of hostels in India might surprise you. What I found, though, was that non-AC rooms in a guesthouse are even cheaper, especially if you have a travel partner and can split the cost of a double room. These are typically no-frills, so make sure you’ve got all you need:

  • Lifesystems Ultralight Mosquito Net: Some guesthouses may provide one, but there were plenty of times when I was glad to have my own. This particular model fits in a side pocket of my backpack, so I could fold it up and forget about it. When paired with 100% DEET insect repellent, you can sleep happy and wake up bite-free (hopefully).
  • Rick Steves’ 50″ microfiber travel towel: Again, not every room will come with one, so having a specially designed microfiber towel will help, especially as it will dry quickly before you pack up the next day.
  • Toilet paper: This is provided even less often than a net or towel, so you’ll want to keep at least one roll on you.
  • Woolite cold water detergent packets or laundry soap sheets: From the most basic guesthouse to a near 5-star hotel, I never stayed somewhere that didn’t keep a bucket in the shower. Carrying a supply of detergent means you can soak a small amount of clothes in the bucket and hang them to dry overnight, just in case you don’t have the time or funds to use a guesthouse’s laundry services.
After a meal

Even if you follow standard tips such as drinking only bottled water, avoiding uncooked vegetables and limiting your meat, there may be a time when something doesn’t sit right with your stomach. It never hurts to have these with you:

Photo by Kirti Poddar

Nor-metrogyl antidiarrheal tablets: These aren’t necessarily to be packed before your trip, but are easily picked up once you reach India and worth having on hand as you travel. A 10-tablet pack from a pharmacy costs 16 rupees (a little over US$0.25) and each contains 500mg of Metronidazole and 400mg of Norfloxacin. At the first sign of “Delhi belly,” I would start taking one tablet in the morning and one at night and be back to normal within a couple of days.

Other items: Water purification tablets, oral rehydration salts or sachets, and diarrhea medicine.

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