Pregnant with steep valleys scattered with scanty shrubs and thorny bushes, I still remember my first indelible trip from Ajmer to Pushkar in Rajasthan. Literally sandwiched between two bulky Rajasthani women, with several other men wearing colourful turbans sitting in the front seat of the jeep, my local ride was entertaining, especially with the subtle local songs being played on the radio. I was profusely perspiring, wiping the streamlets of sweat wetting my forehead, grappling my backpack in the other hand and a bottle of water in the other. But I felt safe, something I never felt in foreign countries before.
As the half-an-hour ride ended, leaving us to the destination, with sands in my boot already collected massively, I tipped a dollar to the jeep driver. Perhaps, ten times more than what the ride actually would have been.
You would ask me why?
Well in Seattle, where I have often travelled in local transport, it meant peanuts. But here, I saw the driver smile, innocently, with eyes full of deep respect, as if I had just patted on his back.
Well, welcome to my story of travelling cheap in India.
See, India is one of the countries where you don’t go to explore the destination, but you yourself. And that is priceless, isn’t it? India is one of the cheapest countries to travel. And when it comes to travel, nothing beats the fact that you can explore the entire country, bit by bit and still end up saving a lot.
So, here are five important tips for travelling cheap in India.
1. Budget Diary: Yes, yes we all talk about maintaining an expenditure diary. But we never do it, do we? Tell me when was the last time you counted how much you spent? Hardly remember, right? So, don’t do it in India. Here food, travel and accommodation are really cheap, especially when you know to haggle. Every city will cost different. For example, Delhi might be costlier than travelling in Jaipur, but you need to make a note, every day, write it down, how much you are going to spend. Nothing should exceed that, no temptation for that zari-work dupatta or those Karachi-imported silver jewellery. Nothing. In short, your wallet should be like your conscience, guiding you when no one is looking at you.
2. Travel locally: Don’t hire a cab or a radio taxi, no matter how convenient it is. Travel locally in India, opt for buses, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws and even the metro. Or just walk. Hire a scooty for a day. Explore the nook and corner of the city which travel books will never tell you about. Even if you decide to travel from Mumbai to Kanyakumari, for example, take the train. Don’t miss out on the beautiful scenery. Believe me, it’s a gift to yourself.
3. No to Resorts: Ah, loved being pampered by the resorts of say, Goa? Or flashy Airbnb accommodations. Strict no no to them. Why spend so much for just sleeping over, anyway? You are a backpacker, always remember that. Travel light and stay in local hotels, but make sure that they aren’t cheating you with over-priced rates. Go for the local fixed rate hotels for a day, which might not cost more than $10-15 dollar a night. And after a really hectic day of exploration, believe me you are going to sleep like a baby. Instead, spend that money on adventure, water sports, snorkeling, paragliding, spotting dolphins or taking a boat cruise ride.
4. Get a local guide: There’s no dearth of English speaking local guides in India, especially near places of historical importance like Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Humayun’s Tob, Red Fort, Qutub Minar or whatever. I chose an old Muslim guide for myself while exploring Agra Fort, someone who narrated me the entire Mughal history, as if they were real life characters, I had already met. And on top of that, he even took pictures. He charged me just $30 dollars, which is nothing in comparison to the value and gravity of knowledge that I had gained from his experience and unique narrative style. In short, don’t go for the pompous, full-of-themselves guides, luring you with their fake accent. They don’t know much, period.
5. Eat Local: If you think eating spicy food in India is going to make you weep, redden up your cheeks and upset your stomach, you are wrong mate. Indian cuisine is full of flavours and variety. In Kashmir you have wazwan and in South India, the typical Idli-Sambar is soothing for your digestion. It’s just that we don’t know about it. But yes, don’t over indulge. Always carry hand sanitizer and paper soaps. Drink a lot of local juices; know why those commercial packaged fruit juices that you had stacked for years in your refrigerator were just high dosage of sugar intake, nothing else.
Read about India before you come. Read about Indians. The culture. Be a responsible traveler. The colours, crowd and hustle and bustle will soak you into chaos, but who says you wont find peace in it? Have you ever tried it? Get out of your shell and just explore, leaving all that you-can-do and can’t-do aside.
Experiment. It’s fun.
So, see you soon mate. Don’t be a stranger to India of course.