I should start by saying that although my domestic travel experience has been quite extensive, I have not traveled very much internationally. In point of fact, I have never traveled to the Eastern Hemisphere, and never been on a trip that was this long. So although I was incredibly excited for the opportunity to travel to India for business, I also had a ton of anxiety. This post is going to focus on the logistics of the trip (which turned out to be the worst part) and some tips I picked up along the way.
First off, just scheduling the flights was a bear. Even though I was flying out of LAX in Los Angeles my choices were pretty limited and I wanted to make sure that I would not have to go through customs during my layover. I ultimately learned that you don’t need a special Visa in most airports for a layover as long as you stay in the international terminal but I heard some countries (like Canada) do require a Visa even to fly into their airports so that is good to know. Because of my concerns I ultimately booked a 5-1/2 hour flight to NYC and then a 16 hour flight to New Delhi, and finally a 3 hour flight to Pune. Originally I booked coach (which was around $1500) but I was rightly concerned that I wouldn’t be able to sleep on that long flight in the middle. Ultimately I followed my company’s travel policy and booked business class (a steep $7700) and thank heavens I did. It mattered less on the flight from LA to NYC, but it was a lifesaver on the 16 hour flight. One piece of advice is the seats do matter in business class and I was much more comfortable as a solo traveler getting one of the single seats on the outside than being right next to someone in the middle. The seats are all the same but I just felt more comfortable.
One of the other great perks of flying business class is you have access to the airport lounges (when available). These lounges have coffee, water, and tea and a small buffet that is free. They also have quiet rooms which I really appreciated. Unfortunately I was only able to take advantage of the ones in NY and LA because American Airlines subcontracted my flights to India and I was not allowed to have access to those rooms. Prior to my departure we upgraded to American Express Platinum, but none of the terminals I was in had one of their lounges. I actually went up to one in Delhi thinking I might be able to get in and was told “No Americans allowed, just for Indian people.” Yep, that happened, and welcome to India.
Speaking at arriving in India, make sure you apply for and get your EVisa prior to going. It turned out to be pretty easy to get the EVisa for me, and I carried a paper copy with me on the travels. I also intentionally took a small suitcase since I didn’t want to check a bag so I could keep everything with me. I am not sure this was at all necessary, but ultimately I am glad I did because on the return leg they made me check the bag to New York (not sure why since I carried on the same type plane coming out no problem) and I worried about my stuff until it was back in my hands. Borrowing a page from my mother (who is a very experienced international traveler) I took clothes I could either throw away or donate locally and filled my bag up with what I bought coming back. Mostly that worked well.
EVisa or not though when I arrived in Delhi things were pretty stressful. I had to go through customs and then did two different security checks. The lines were long and all of my documents were looked at very closely. The airports I was at were run by the military and they were very serious. I just kept quiet and did what I was told which worked very well. The only time I got a little agitated was when one of the security stops confiscated my E-Cigarette batteries. I knew this was a strong possibility from my research but was somewhat surprised when they actually did it and again I just kept my opinions to myself and did what I was told. Remember you are in a foreign country and they can pretty much arrest you if they want and even if the charges didn’t stick who would want to be arrested in a foreign country??? To be fair coming back into New York wasn’t much better. A woman got in the wrong line and the TSA agent yelled at her in front of everyone saying “you need to do what we tell you to do” in a pretty crappy tone. At least the Indian military is just silently menacing.
One other weird thing about security is to change terminals you need to exit the building and not only go back into security to get into the airport terminal itself but then again to get to the gates. I even had one flight where they did security one more time prior to getting on the flight and we were kept in a glassed waiting area (with no water or bathrooms) until we were allowed on the flight. On the way back to the US I went through security 8 different times before finally landing on the last flight. Pretty miserable especially because the search lines are segregated in India and you have to go into a curtained area with a woman who pats you down and wands you. Not only does it take longer but its also a little more familiar than I am used to.
One thing I want to mention is I was concerned about smells, but all the airports and almost every place of business I went to was incredibly (and I mean spotlessly) clean and had no odors beyond the normal people smells. To the contrary there are a lot of green spaces and flowers everywhere and most people smelled of nice smelling body wash or oils. And since personal space boundaries are closer than in the US I was close to people but rarely encountered an unpleasant smell and I am pretty sensitive to that. Bathrooms were also better than expected again being very clean and all (that I used) had toilet paper along with the more commonly used spray nozzle. Indians in general believe using a spray hose to clean those areas is more sanitary and frankly they may be right. That being said I carried disposable wipes just in case but ultimately used toilet paper. One thing I should mention is in almost every restroom there is one stall that is an old fashioned design which was a hole and a spray nozzle. These were the exception rather than the rule though and I was pleasantly surprised.
Where I did struggle though was food and drink. First of all it is considered extremely bad manners to eat (or shake hands) with your left hand because that is the hand they use to wipe in the bathroom. It was REALLY hard to force myself to only use the right hand to eat but I think I did pretty well. The food itself was pretty challenging because I simply don’t handle spicy foods well. I quickly learned that even mild might be too spicy for me so I always carried protein bars and ultimately ate those in a pinch. Even American food chains are different because absolutely NO beef is allowed in the country. I’m not sure how I missed that but the McDonald’s had veggie burgers and chicken and the subway just tasted plain weird. The closest thing I found was KFC where the mild chicken was like our spicy here. That was ok for me. Worst of all you can’t trust any raw vegetables or fruits (unless you peel them) because they may be washed in water that will make you sick. I couldn’t even trust ice which was super hard for me but ultimately I learned to put the ice in my Life Straw and drink it as it melted through the filter. I put ALL of my drinks through the Lifestraw and was very careful about what I ate and thankfully I didn’t get sick once. Yes it wasn’t the culinary journey I hoped for but staying well was far more important to me.
See that look the guys in the pictures above were giving me? Well as a solo female traveler I got that look ALOT. To counter this I followed my company’s security recommendations and dressed in loose clothing and covered my arms to the elbows but I still got the look. I also bought a shawl but never wore it because many women in this region of India don’t.
To be fair, no one said or did anything but I felt low level uncomfortable any time I was traveling alone. To be clear not unsafe, because I stayed in crowded places and didn’t go out alone at night, but still it wasn’t great. On the way back I was more prepared for the stares and started to ignore them. It actually helped that on the flight back I saw another female traveler with an Ohio State T-Shirt that I recognized from the trip out. I introduced myself to Laura and learned this was her first trip to India as well. She lives in Mansfield and her daughter goes to Ohio State (where I went) and I couldn’t get over what a small world it is. We supported each other via texting on the way back and walked together when it made sense. The sense of relief from having someone else looking out for you was palpable and I am so glad I got to meet her.
Speaking of texting, one of the things I heard from a friend who travels to India regularly is that the phone wouldn’t work in New Delhi if you didn’t have a local number. I had worked to make sure I had international calling and Wifi before I went and wow was I glad I did. People talk about getting a sim card and “popping it into your phone” when in India like its no big deal but I was super intimidated by that. Having a working phone was an absolute lifeline and even without the Indian number I felt much more confident. I will say there are all kind of things you can’t do easily without an Indian number and may make a different choice in the future, but please make sure you have some sort of communication because Wifi simply isn’t available everywhere.
When I finally arrived in Pune it was 5:30am and after a 27 hour travel day I was exhausted. I walked outside expecting to see a driver with my name on a placard but no one was there. I followed the signs (they are all in English and Hindi which is great) and ultimately found myself in a parking garage with six strange men. After talking to them, I called the hotel and learned no one from my company had ordered a car. They sent one right away but it still took 20 minutes and I started crying quietly in the meantime. One of the security guards came over and found me a chair to sit on and the men guarded me (I don’t know how to describe it) until the taxi arrived. That was absolutely the worst of either trip and being more familiar with the country I definitely wouldn’t be in that situation again. I would say my biggest lesson from the experience is take nothing for granted and verify everything prior to traveling and even doing so be prepared to deal with the unexpected.
Next up I make it to the hotel and my adventure truly begins.
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