Back From India

August 30, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

I recently traveled to India (for the paying job) and I thought I'd share my experience(s) of getting to and from there. Obviously I'm flying out of Raleigh since that's where I'm located. Delta Airlines offers a flight from Raleigh to Paris which is nice; however, CDG (Charles De Gaulle Airport) is a maze of terminals and the signage for getting from one gate to another (especially if you have to change terminals) is confusing and sometimes just plain stops. My first time going through CDG I became completely lost and I crossed through EU passport control at least four times before I finally found my gate. I finally asked someone where E42 was and she pointed down a staircase which was not marked AT ALL.  I am certain I walked past it at least once before finding but not before I ended up going through passport control again.

If you can swing it, I highly recommend going through Amsterdam's Schiphol airport instead. The airport is far easier to navigate and negotiating security checkpoints is as seamless (but as thorough) as it is here in the US. That's likely going to mean flying through Atlanta if you fly with Delta but plenty of other airlines also fly through AMS. Of the major European airports I've been through now (Heathrow, Amsterdam, Paris, Prague, and Vienna), Amsterdam is, hands down, my favorite. The people working in the airport are friendly, clear, and helpful. Even the security folks are extremely helpful in setting expectations of what they need you to do and unless you do something stupid or have ill intentions you will not have problems getting through security. After coming through Delhi security the Dutch made me feel as though I was home already. They did their job but I didn't feel as though I was a potential criminal either.

Getting to India is just the start of your adventure. I do recommend flying into Delhi over Mumbai but that depends on where you are going in India as well. For your first destination in India you can't really do better than Delhi though. The airport is new, there are plenty of hotels very close to the airport; which is important if you are going to another destination in India as you will likely be landing late at night in Delhi -- or Mumbai for that matter -- without the ability to get a connecting flight until the next day. I highly recommend the JW Marriott by the Delhi airport. The rates are extremely reasonable for an extremely well appointed and (honestly) pampering hotel. After 12-16 hours of travel having the staff take care of you when you get there will be worth it. They will also contact you about flight details and arrange a personal pick up at the arrival hall (for a nominal -- and I mean nominal -- charge). The JW Marriott is less than ten minutes from your gate. You'll be waiting for baggage longer than it will take to get to the hotel.

Okay! So you've been immensely enjoying India! Now it's time to return home... or perhaps, Delhi isn't your final destination and you'll be going back through an airport for destinations further in India. Here is where things get really interesting. Negotiating security at the airport. You cannot enter the terminal of any airport (at least that I've been to) in India without either your boarding pass or itinerary (and of course, passport). Period. I'd strongly recommend checking in on-line and then printing your boarding passes. If your flights are to leave India then you may not be able to print boarding passes because you'll need to show your passport to get them. In that case, print your itinerary and have it on paper. Be prepared for the following:

  1. Long lines to enter the terminal
  2. Once you are in the terminal, you can't leave. (No, I'm not kidding)
  3. Long lines for checking bags, checking in, security, etc. Everything moves on India time at that point.
  4. LOTS of people. Lots. And lots of people working in the airport trying to make things orderly which is questionable they are.
  5. Showing your boarding pass and passport uncountable numbers of times. You will show your passport boarding pass/itinerary to enter the terminal. Then again for check in obviously. If you use a self-check in kiosk. You will need to show your passport and boarding passes to check your bags. You'll need to show your passport and boarding passes to enter the security checkpoint (sometimes but not always).
  6. Unlike almost anywhere else in the world, you will need to keep your boarding pass on your person as you go through security as they will want to see and stamp it.
  7. Passport control will want to see your passport and boarding pass(es).
  8. You may need to show your passport and boarding pass(es) to enter the gate area depending on the airport.
  9. You'll have to present your boarding pass (normal anywhere) to board the plane and your passport... again.
  10. On the jetway there will likely be someone checking boarding passes and passports.... again.
  11. As you enter the plane you'll be asked to present your boarding pass... again.

All told, you're going to end up showing your boarding pass and passport at minimum a half dozen times from the point you enter the terminal to the time you board the plane. It's definitely overkill and, by the time you are boarding the plane, downright annoying.

If the constant requests for boarding passes and passport isn't enough, going through security is a hassle. It would almost be more efficient for the security folks to ask you to empty the entire contents of your bag into a bin so they can scan the bin and your empty bag. If you're like me, and you travel with a lot of electronic gear, I strongly recommend getting an organizer to put in your carry on for all your power cables, bricks, batteries, and devices. Going through my first airport and then Delhi I was asked to take cables, power bricks, chargers, batteries, mobile, tablet, laptop, earbuds, ethernet cables, power adapter, etc. out of my pack and put into a bin. The only thing left in my pack was a clear bag with my vape liquid and toothpaste, car keys, a notebook, a cotton garment, breath mints, and a pack of coils for my vape device. Interestingly, they didn't give two shits about the "liquid" in my pack but they were very "concerned" about the small vape device I had which I had just purchased for traveling. It's about half the size of a playing card and about half as thick as a full deck of playing cards (they also didn't like that I had deck of playing cards in my pack and made me take those out and scan them also). They didn't like the small vape device so much that they actually made me use it right there in the security checkpoint. I'm assuming this was because they'd never seen one this small before but, honestly, it doesn't look all that much different than a power brick for charging a device. Moral of the story, they definitely don't like electronic devices in the security checkpoints and put extra scrutiny on them. If you can have them in an organizer that you can easily pull out and put into a bin it will save you time, especially when you are left putting a huge bundle of crap back into your pack and you have a crowd of people around you pushing past to get their own items (and when I say pushing, I mean that literally).

Now that I'm back, the first thing I did was order an organizer that will allow me to just pull out all that stuff together and put into a bin with little fuss and then I can just put it back into my pack with minimal fuss.

If you're traveling with photo gear, it's going to be more difficult as I witnessed another person getting even more scrutiny over his photo gear. The security services wanted all of his lenses out to scan individually even though he had taken his small pack of photo gear out of his main pack put it into a bin separately. That still wasn't good enough. I'm debating whether I ever bring any photo gear to India or not after witnessing that and they were not handling his gear gently either which was clearly causing this guy a lot of distress. I could completely empathize with him.

Uber is available in India but don't expect the same experience you get in Europe or North America. It's going to be basic transportation; however, it's dirt cheap. My ride from the original point to the airport (about 7 kilometers) was less than five dollars even though it took almost an hour (due to the organized chaos of Indian traffic) to get there. The cars are relatively clean and get you from point A to point B but don't expect conversation, AC, or a car made in the same decade you're traveling in. Traffic in India is INSANE. I seriously cannot stress that enough. There are no rules so it's better left to have a local drive you to wherever you need to go.

Splurge! India is a great opportunity to stay at nice hotels at ridiculously lower rates than what you would pay in many other countries around the world. My stay at the JW Marriott in Delhi was less that $150 USD (before taxes and the Pepsi I drank from the mini bar). A stay at the same hotel here in the states would easily be 5 times that much!

This most recent trip was only my second time in India. My first trip was 10 years ago this year and I noticed some changes. First, India is still a developing country and the chasm between the people that have money and those that don't is going to be right in your face. While the caste system is not the accepted (sic, official) way forward in India it's obvious that cultural heritage will take a couple or more generations to take hold. People will be living in slums like you haven't seen before (unless you've been to similar places). It's not unusual to see corrugated tin shacks cobbled together with a satellite dish on top. On the other hand, my experience ten years later made me notice that things have progressed. I was not greeted in the airport or outside the airport with a "what the !@$# is that smell?" reaction. I vividly remember that as soon as I entered the terminal in Mumbai in 2009. The other thing I noticed was that the rivers and streams weren't clogged with trash. In fact, I learned this trip that India has completely banned single-use plastic bags. That really impressed me and I think that decision has made a huge difference. India is a beautiful country with beautiful and interesting people. I was so happy to hear that steps are being taken to mind the environment there.

On food and avoiding getting sick. Yes it's true that if you don't live there it's a real possibility to get very sick since your gut is not used to what it's going to be exposed to. Avoid eating any sort of raw fruits and vegetables. Everything you eat should be cooked. Eat yogurt or curd as much as possible. Fortunately bottled water is not difficult to come by there at all. Use the bottled water to wet and rinse your toothbrush (and obviously rinse your mouth). Avoid getting water in your mouth while you shower and as a precaution bring mouthwash (like Listerine) to rinse your mouth out thoroughly after you shower. If you get ice in your drinks, ask if the ice is made from filtered water -- you're not being rude if you ask. If the ice is not made from filtered water then avoid ice in your beverages. Enjoy the food! If you are sensitive to spicy food then don't be afraid to ask for "less spicy" or no spice at all. Indians eat a lot of spicy food and it's much hotter than what we are accustomed to in the west. If your gut isn't used to this then all of the above won't matter. Your gut will retaliate for all heavy spices you're introducing to it. I would also recommend avoiding seafood even if it's cooked. Seafood is going to take in whatever pollutants are in the water and while India is taking steps to be a better custodian of its environment there is still a lot of work to be done. Unfortunately, there's no telling what you will ingest by consuming seafood no matter how much it is cooked. There is plenty of other food to try and enjoy though.

My last bit of advice is to avoid Air India at all costs! If Air India is even around a year from now it will be a small miracle. I cannot stress enough how much this airline SUCKS. For domestic travel I highly recommend Vistara or IndiGo. On this most recent trip I booked Air India from Delhi to my final destination and then back to Delhi. I was less than impressed with the flight from Delhi because everything screamed "bankruptcy" to me. It was less than a two hour flight from Delhi to my destination but they still served a full meal on the flight; it wasn't even a normal meal time. Yet the whole experience felt "cheapo air travel". Why serve a meal on a flight that short? I'd have been fine with just beverages and some peanuts. That was a red flag definitely. For my return trip to Delhi I received a sketchy email saying that my flight had been cancelled about 19 hours before I was due to take off. This is where it gets interesting. I checked the Air India site, we called the airline, we had our corporate travel agency call the airline, heck even the departure boards at the airport all indicated that my flight to Delhi was still scheduled. It wasn't until I went to check my bag that I was told the flight was, indeed, cancelled. Apparently she and the crew were the only people in all of Air India that knew the flight was actually cancelled. So the email was legit but the number I was supposed to call resulted in a "this number is no longer in service" answer. No explanation offered, by the way, and because it was a full flight of over 220 people every other flight to Delhi was sold out. I was lucky to grab the last seat on a Vistara flight that was one of the last flights out. I narrowly avoided being stuck and having to purchase all new tickets to get home. This was also when I discovered that once you're in the terminal, you're not getting out of the terminal. I had a terrible signal in the airport and there was no WiFi to connect to and I was stressing at this point thinking about how much this was going to cost my employer if I couldn't get to Delhi to make my connecting flight. I wanted to get outside to get a better signal and vape like a mad man while I sorted all this out. Access denied.

In the end it all worked out; but I cannot stress enough about avoiding Air India. You will definitely run the risk of getting stranded because they apparently cancel flights without notice and do next to nothing to make sure you have a path forward. In other words, if they cancel a flight you are on, your own but they will offer to refund you for the flight. That's a big fat consolation when looking at being stuck at an airport and having to completely rearrange your entire travel at a significant cost to you or your employer. I am, by the way, not basing this solely on my single experience. I'm also basing this on the what the locals and my co-workers told me. My co-workers even told me that I should have asked them which airline to use when flying from Delhi to my final destination and they would have told me to avoid Air India. Many of them thought that Air India would likely be bankrupt and gone by the time I return next year. I hate that for an airline but given my one experience I can see why they think that. The only other airline that I have experienced something similar was US Air many years ago and we all know what happened to that airline. If American hadn't bought them, they would have ended up folding.

As a result of this trip I also purchased an electronic organizer through Amazon for a bargain price of $20. Electronic Organizer It's well constructed and, with the exception of my power adapter and travel extension cord, fits all my gear including my 12.9" iPad Pro (in it's keyboard case). I'm totally fine with it not being able to accommodate either of those things as I won't need the power adapter on a plane and I can easily put the travel extension cord in my pack. I also purchased the Nomatic messenger bag which I cannot recommend enough. I ended up getting their previous model messenger bag on clearance which still isn't cheap.  Nomatic's bags are thoughtfully (and cleverly) designed, and extremely well made. For example, the shoulder strap for the messenger bag is removable and held in place with rare earth magnets and a gravity locking mechanism. This means that when the padding on the shoulder strap wears out (which it eventually will) I can order a new strap. Messenger Bag The bag will probably last me a lifetime judging by the craftsmanship and materials. I will also be purchasing their 40 liter travel backpack which for most of my travels will hold all of my clothes, including an extra pair of shoes meaning I can avoid checking baggage completely. While I'm not on the road every other week I do travel frequently and there is nothing like the feeling of being able to walk straight on and off the plane avoiding waiting for baggage and not worrying about it being lost or items stolen. For times when I'm traveling with lots of photo gear I have purchased another backpack that holds nearly all of my photo gear which is the Lowepro ProRunner BP 450. This bag is a beast but it's really well designed and does a magnificent job of distributing the weight of my gear (including tripod) evenly which is important because this bag weighs about 40lbs (18kg) when I have it fully loaded. If I wanted to I could even get my enormous 120-300mm telephoto in this bag but it would be at the sacrifice of other gear. Camera Pack For trips where I'm traveling on business but plan to take my camera the Nomatic 40L bag will allow me room for a camera body and a couple of lenses; especially since I'll be carrying my messenger bag for my work gear. The whole point of this is that if you are or plan to start traveling more for business, photography, or just fun, it's worthwhile investing in the right gear to make luggage, check-in, security, etc. as simple as possible.


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