What to Pack When Traveling to India for a Year

Hi, y’all. I’m trying to fill this site out with posts to see how I like the format. (Verdict so far: I’m not sure…I mean, what is with that enormous white space? How do I put something in there? Grr. Update: Ah, I remember. You have to give the post a featured image. I dig it.) But the problem is, first I have to start writing posts. Which is hard when, you know, you work three days a week and do grad school on top of that.

But anyway, enough sob story. I thought of something really important I wanted to write about. That is, What to Pack When Traveling to India for a Year.

Hubby and I lived in India for a year when we were first married. It was pretty much a rip-roarin’ good time once I got over the culture shock. You’ll probably hear me talk a lot about how awesome India is in the future.

What I’m here to say, though, is that I went over there like a chump. I brought like, two pairs of clothes with me (I’ll buy the stuff when I get there!) and filled the rest of my suitcase with medical supplies and pills. Come on. Not needed. We lived in Calcutta, where you could pretty much get anything medically or otherwise that you needed. Except for some stuff. Like avocados. (It was a hard year without avocados. And if you’re wondering why my writing is so stilted and less-than-my-usual-hilarious, it’s because I haven’t fully waken up yet. Okay, it’s because I haven’t had my coffee yet, and I’m a little annoyed that there aren’t any apples for me to eat for breakfast, and that I had pour unsweetened almond milk over the Frosted Mini Wheats I chose instead. Life is hard, man. #firstworldproblems)

I loved India so much that I’m hoping to go back myself, on a Fulbright. I mean, Fulbrights are tough to get, but I figure, hey. I’ve got a year’s worth of experience. I speak a little Bengali. I know all the peeps at USIEF. So why wouldn’t they give me a free year’s worth of grant money to sit around in a coffeeshop and drink Hazelnut & Butterrum Caffes all day long? (Oh, and write. That’s what I would be going there for, after all.)

If I do get said Fulbright, I would organize my packing list much differently. I’m guessing I could do without the entire Band-Aid first aid kit. (Which, by the way. Let me rant. That thing contains like, two tiny squeeze packs of Neosporin and the rest is freaking Band-Aids. I’m putting my own first aid kit from now on, thank you very much.) What I can’t do without is deodorant, which has inexplicably not made it to India yet–the stick kind, at least. Another insight: two bars is probably enough for a full year.

So without much further ado, I present to you my India Essentials Packing List complete with explanations. If no one but Future Me benefits from this, so be it. At least I have it all down in one place.

  • A few choice Western Favorite Outfits. Some days you just feel like jeans and a nice top, which I didn’t understand until I got to India. As you can see from the picture above, I am wearing a flowing pink tunic top (man, I love that thing–got it at Wal-Mart so many years ago!) and a nice, dark pair of jeans. The top was one of the two outfits I brought over with me, because it was sorta-kinda India-ish and I had nothing else to get me started. (See below re: starter clothes. I bought two pairs of jeans in Calcutta, but I really wouldn’t do it again. The one pair was baggy-butt on me, and the second pair, the dark jeans from above, were too tight. All this could’ve been avoided if I had just brought one or two of my favorite jeans with me to start with. There are definitely malls in India where you can get western-style clothes, but they’re just…cut differently or something. Just bring a few of your favorites, and you’ll be fine.
  • Good, warm clothes. If you’re staying in Calcutta in the winter, be prepared for three months of chill. And since everything indoors is the same temperature as outdoors, there is.no.relief. I slept with multiple covers pulled over my head. And normally I can’t sleep with covers over my head because I have suffocation dreams. Heck. I even wrapped my dupatta around my head like a turban to keep it warm. A nice sweater and hat would have gone a long way those days.
  • Several sets of India Starter Clothes. Okay, I know this is nearly impossible for those of you going to India for the first time. But if you do a quick Etsy search for “women’s kurtas” you can find stuff. Just pair a kurta with a matching colored legging and you’re golden. If I do go back to India, I’m hoping to set up an Etsy shop myself, to sell all the cool streetwares you can’t find in the US of A. If that happens, I’ll update this post with a link to my super-awesome (and as yet uncreated) Etsy shop. What I’m trying to say is, when you’re feeling culture-shocked out of your mind, you really aren’t going to want to trek off to the local street market and deal with bargaining for clothes. You just aren’t. (Unless you’re the super adventurous, in-denial type, of which I am not.) When we first arrived, I was terrified to even leave our hotel and buy a bottle of water alone. It would’ve been nice to have a few pairs of Indian clothes to get me through that first, tough week.
  • Good sandals/shoes in general. I don’t know if you can see what I’m wearing there. Nah, hardly. Those are my Bata plastic monsoon sandals. No joke, they’re plastic. And actually, they’re perfect for monsoon season, when you have to trek around in water. A quip: the monsoon rain started when my sister visited. One sunny day we decided to visit Lake Market for some milk. The place was flooded in ankle-deep water. I would not be deterred, and kept wading…until I fell knee-deep into a construction hole they had so conveniently dug just a week before (another hilarious “India, You So Cray” moment). My shoe came off and stuck in the mud at the bottom of the hole. Some nice guy from a stand nearby came over and fished it loose with a stick…at which point it floated to the top. So yeah, morel of the story is, if you’re going to be visiting during the monsoons, buy yourself some cheap plastic Bata sandals when you get there. But other than that–I wasn’t thrilled with any of the Bata styles. I would’ve been happy bringing my own pair of favorite comfy sandals (and comfy does not equal schlubby, people!) as well as a nice pair of flats to switch it up occasionally. BUT. These shoes will get beat up. So just keep that in mind, and don’t bring your favorite $1,000 pair of, I don’t know, Gucci sandals. Or whatever.
  • Malaria pills. Birth control. Basically a whole years’ supply of Rx meds you’d rather not have prescribed to you in India. I’m a pretty shy person, first off. So I wasn’t going to go to the doctor for birth control. And now that I think about it, I probably won’t have any need for BC if I go back again, because my husband will be living primarily in the states for his job. That said, I doubt that doc would really prescribe malaria pills. It’s actually pretty bad for your liver to be on that stuff long-term. We also brought a bunch of antibiotics along, because the first time hubby went to India he got bronchitis or something, but the doctor didn’t give him a Z-pack until super late. So I guess I would do that over again, even though we never used any of that stuff. Good to have on hand.
  • Deodorant (but maybe not razors). As I said earlier, stick deodorant still hasn’t come to India. I think they have the spray kind. But if you value your stick deodorant, bring it along. That said, other toiletries really aren’t necessary–you can pick up bars of soap and reduced-size shampoo and conditioner at the roadside stalls. I don’t really remember what I used to shave my underarms…I think I might’ve brought my Schick Intuition (no, it’s not a paid endorsement, but I fully recommend it!) and some spare razor blades, and had relatives restock me when they visited. But if I go again, I’ll probably just buy a razor there, because they definitely have them.
  • Makeup. Another thing I thought I wouldn’t miss during my year away, until I did. And again, you can buy makeup there, but I would’ve rather just had my good ol’ trusty home stuff to use when I felt like gettin’ fancy and taking the Metro to Flurys.
  • A swimsuit: Okay. I can tell you after one traumatic experience in Goa wherein I was essentially molested underwater and lost my favorite pair of Rx sunglasses that you do not want to wear a swimsuit out to any of India’s bodies of water. I’m sorry, but that’s just how it is, if you’re a lady. You’ll have to content yourself to bashfully pulling up the legs of your pajamas and wading in no further than ankle-deep. However. Fulbright put us up in a pretty luxurious hotel during the Goa conference, and I would’ve really loved to soak in the pool on the roof. Less creepy Indian dudes grabbing at me when I was feeling helpless from the giant waves. A swimsuit takes literally no room at all in a suitcase (“literally” is meant to be ironic there, you see what I did? I have been drinking wine) so why not bring it along? Else you’ll have to buy a polka-dot swimsuit with a skirt and sleeves, all while fretting that the bus will leave for the beach without you. And that would be sad sauce.
  • Optional: a good pour-over coffee system. Coffee, yet another thing I thought I could do without for a year. I lasted…two weeks? Maybe a month, tops, until I caved and went in Barista. Oh, yeah. In the bigger cities they have coffeeshops all over the place. And that’s fine. Heck, it’s wonderful to get a beautiful, silly drink for a couple bucks. I never got sick on the iced drinks, but that’s another post for sure. But some mornings, you just want coffee. Not cha. Coffee. In which case, and I am still debating–a plastic drip system like this one would do the trick. (And again, not a paid endorsement, but we own it and have gotten good use out of it.) Mostly Nescafe instant granules are sold in the grocery stores and markets, but if you go to a South Indian stall–which I only discovered like, ten months in, so you’re welcome for this tip–you can buy actual ground coffee, mixed with chicory. ‘Cuz that’s the way they like to do it there. The reason I’m debating the idea of bringing a coffee dripper is because you can also get a special South Indian percolator, but you have to plan ahead and cold-brew the coffee overnight. Then you mix it with milk and pour it back and forth to froth it…mmm. Here’s more info about that process.

Anyway, that’s all I can think of for now. I’m sure I’ll update as needed. Gosh, I love India. I really, really, really, really, really hope they let me go back on a Fulbright. I would die. No, I would die, then I would pick myself back up and die again.

P.S. I just can’t get over how much I love that picture of me. I’m just–caught in the moment of licking my finger, like I was so excited to eat that meal. I lost a fair amount of weight at the beginning of our year because of, you know, culture shock stomach clench. But then I gained it alllll back my final three months at AIIS because the food there was so gosh darned tasty. So yeah. That picture is gen-yoo-wine.

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