The Hostel Guide

Travel Tips, Uncategorized

“I stayed in hostels,” I said as I described how I afforded a month in Europe.

My friend looked at me aghast, “You stayed where? Weren’t you scared?”

Now it was my turn to look baffled. Scared of what? I thought. A hostel was basically no different than a college dorm.

I must admit my initial idea of the word hostel was… colored by the movie Hostel… I was thinking more along the lines of hostile. The first time I stayed in a hostel, a coworker invited me to come out with her boyfriend and her to see a concert, then informed me we wouldn’t make the journey back to Suwon that night. Every other hostel was full except a new one just on the outskirts of Hongdae. I put on the game face of not being afraid of anything and agreed to do so. After all, they were the worldly ones who told me they stayed in hostels every weekend.

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How bad could it be?

Not bad at all.

We checked in, me in a 4-person dorm, which I ended up having all to myself. Went down for the free breakfast in the morning, unsure of the ettiquette, and left soon after.

The second time, I was in charge of the booking. A group of friends was visiting me from China and we wanted to stay the night in Seoul together. Feeling especially leery of staying in a larger dorm room, we ended up renting out a 6-person bed dorm, leaving one of the beds unfilled and just paying a few extra won each for the price. The staff was friendly, as were the others staying there, who promptly offered us chicken as we checked in.

Soon after, on a trip to Busan, we lucked out to find a three-person private room. It wasn’t until the following year, in another hostel just outside of Hongdae, that I stayed in a dorm room that had… dun, dun, dun strangers.

The hostel owner, a man whose head practically brushed the ceiling with thick dreads falling all the way to his waist introduced himself as King.

“King?” I questioned, not sure if I heard that correctly.

“King.” He confirmed.

That was a new one. As I mulled over his name, he showed me the four-person dorm and explained, “The fourth person hasn’t checked in yet. The other two girls are from China. I don’t think they speak English, but they shop during the day and stay out every night until three or four am.”

His prediction was true enough. When I walked in later that night, they were just getting spruced up to go out, shopping bags from Tony Moly, Innisfree, and Etude House littering their beds. They looked up when I entered the room and we did the awkward smile-greeting before I climbed into bed and they walked out the door.

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Fears tend to disappear after your first interactions with people. After that, I had no problem booking dorm beds wherever I was, whether that was in India, Korea, or Europe. The only exception to my rule of traveling in hostels was using airbnb in Tokyo (because have you seen their hostel bed prices?!) and a hotel room cheaper than get-out in the small, hostel-less town of Ronda in southern Spain.

I’ve stayed in good hostels and some awful ones that I would never stay in again. When looking for a hostel, it’s all about choosing something that goes with your style of travel. For myself, that means I look for some very specific things.

Here’s what I look for:

What is the hostel’s rating?

Whether you found the hostel on hostelworld.com or stumbled upon it from a hotel-searching website, almost every site has a rating. And if it doesn’t have a rating on one website, a swift google search will surely yield results. I generally stay in the range of 3.8 stars or above on hostel-exclusive websites, but that rating drops a little bit on hotel websites (since, y’know, it has to compete with places like the Four Seasons).

How many people gave a rating?

This is highly connected to the first question. Maybe a hostel has a five star rating… but if it only has two reviews, does that even matter? I’ll give you that some hostels are new and therefore don’t have many reviews, but usually hostels with a low number of reviewers don’t stand in the same ballpark as hostels with 1,000+ reviewers and over a 3.8 rating. That means the hostel is good because a lot of people gave it a high rating.

What do the reviews say?

Maybe all the reviewers loved the social atmosphere of the hostel, but the showers were nasty enough they needed a shower from their shower. For some, that might not be a draw for choosing the hostel, but for others, it might be the drawing line. Take every review with a grain of salt. If most reviews are great and there’s a single bad egg, acknowledge that might just be a bad experience among a sea of plenty. But also, if there are a lot of bad to mediocre reviews and one stellar one… take that stellar one with a grain of salt. Because it probably won’t be that great.

What’s the atmosphere like?

I like social hostels, but I also want the hard-partiers to take it outside after a certain time (preferably 11 o’clock). I don’t need to hear thumping music and people throwing up in the bathroom at 3 a.m. But this might be what you want. Check the description of the hostel, read reviews, and look at pictures. One give-away that you’re at a quieter hostel is if it allows families to stay in private rooms. I also look to see if there are any sort of activities the hostel has, particularly if I’m traveling solo such as: dinners, walking tours, day trips, pub crawls, yoga classes, etc. to help meet more people.

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How much does it cost?

I have a budget I set before I look at hostels, and I stick to it. The more beds in a room, the cheaper the price will be, but also the more unlikely you will be to sleep. Women-only rooms tend to be more expensive than mixed dorm rooms. I tend to stay in 4-8 bed women-only rooms, but it’s completely up to your preference. Country also tends to play a huge role here. You’re going to pay a lot more in London than in New Delhi. That’s just a fact. Don’t go to London expecting to find a ten pound dorm bed that’s not going to be the most disgusting thing you’ve ever seen in your life.

What type of room do I want to stay in?

Hostels aren’t just dorm rooms. There are private rooms from one-people up to a complete plethora. There are huge dorm rooms and small ones. There are all women-rooms and mixed ones. The more people in the room, usually the less it costs. Private rooms can be at least 3-6x more expensive than a dorm room. Some hostels operate more like hotels. Decide what you would feel more comfortable in and test it out.

Some random hostels I liked and why:

Granada Inn Backpackers in Granada, Spain

Beautiful hostel located in one of the old mansions in the city. The center of the hostel is completely open. They really made it easy to check in early and leave your baggage while you wait for your room to be ready (and also to shower, if you want). They also offer quite a few activities, including a dinner and they direct you to the free walking tours of the city (which I would highly recommend).

The location is pretty great, just a short walk from everywhere in Granada with a lot of restaurants around. Staff was really helpful. The dinner made everything really social. While I didn’t eat the first night, I did come by the tail end and ended up meeting a lot of people. I also really liked the rooms. The particular room I stayed in was a six-bed, but it was split into two rooms with four beds in one room, and two beds in the other (I, of course, chose the two-bed room).

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The Madpackers Hostel in New Delhi, India

I was really suitably impressed by this hostel. And this is considering that the rooms had that slightly-musty smell and damp feeling that comes with being in such a humid climate. And that the front-desk workers and cleaners had a habit of busting into the rooms without knocking at any time they liked. For one, it was really social. They had a huge open space filled with couches and beanbags for people to hang out, watch a movie, or work on stuff in. The desk staff worked hard to make it social, too, and would take the time to have at least brief conversations with everyone.

The staff was also always ready to give recommendations on where to go and help you uber your way to your next destination. On top of this, they had so many activities. They did trips to Agra, walking tours through different Delhi districts, picnics, basically anything. The breakfast included for free was also pretty legit and people tended to be social around the large table in the dining room. They have a lot of reviews and a high rating to go with them.

Generator Hostel Paris in Paris, France

Generator is a huge chain of hostels that is all over Europe, so they’re really not hard to find. This is a great hostel to start off at if you’ve never been in a hostel because it’s just like a hotel… with dorm beds. After staying in some okay hostels, this one was like a breath of fresh air. The beds are nice and supplied with linens, outlets, shelving space. There were arm chairs, a vanity, and in-room bathrooms along with bathrooms outside.

The location was pretty central, not directly next to any tourist attractions, but in a good place to get to them. Also, if you walked just a little down the street over the canal, there was an amazing block full of food. Some of the best food I ate in Europe was in that random little smattering of buildings. Here, though, I’d have to say that how social your hostel is greatly depends on who is in your room. We had a social room, but you could be in a room where people aren’t so quick to want to hang out.

There are a ton of hostels out there. I’d give them a try if you’re traveling solo or with some friends as a way to save some money and not have to worry about splitting things. Some hostels are great, some are not so great, but the same could be said with hotels. Be aware, watch your stuff, but don’t live in fear of the dorm rooms. They really aren’t that bad at all.

*Note: None of these pictures are of the hotels. I never think to take pictures of where I’m staying. So here are some random street images that, uh, could be hostels. Really.

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Three Weddings and No Funeral: American, Korean, and Indian

Essays, India, Travel Tips, Uncategorized

An American Wedding

We arrived in a packed van donning pressed shirts and slacks, colorful dresses and heels. My brothers and father shoved their way out of the car after the three-hour trip while I managed to wedge my feet into a pair of heels.

In the parking lot, the men all whipped their ties around their necks with near-expert skills. People stumbling out from other vehicles did the same.

“Carry me,” I urged one of my brothers as we walked past manicured lawns and gardens in a strange pseudo-colonial village dotted with white-washed buildings bearing cute names such as: the tavern and the restaurant. We made our way to the chapel.

A scant seventy-odd people packed their way into the pews of the tiny buildings. Some stood against the wall when it became clear no more seats were to be had.

The groom stood stock-still at the front of the room as guests shuffled in.

Everyone glanced around, waiting for the wedding march to start up. Nothing.

“It’s hot,” one of my brothers groaned as he played a game on his phone.

Finally, twenty minutes later, the cadence started up. The groomsmen escorted lilac-colored bridesmaids (the brides sisters and future daughter-in-law), up to the podium. The music changed, and the bride revealed herself at the double door opening.

As soon as she entered, everyone in the chapel stood to watch her pass by, a beautiful, tall model-type draped in white.

Together, the bride and groom stood together grinning as the presider over the wedding recited the vows and they repeated along.

A short 15-minute ceremony led the crowd onto the grass for rounds of group pictures in the dwindling sunlight. Family reunited with giant hugs and exclamations over how everyone looked while family friends lingered and mingled. A man dressed in a smart suit came out and announced it was time to move to the next location: a private room with a giant carousel with an open bar.

 

Everyone shuffled and wobbled on heels over to the room and grabbed a drink and h’ors dourves from passing waiters.
“Come on,” my mom said and pointed to the line of people waiting to get on the working carousel.

Reluctantly, I gave my drink to my brother, never to see it again and chose a horse to ride side-saddle with all the volume of my skirts.

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With a kick, we were off, winding round and round in a circle. I giggled and pulled faces for my brothers, ready with their cameras. This, I thought, was definitely one of the the most interesting weddings I’d ever been to. It nearly beat out the one in a castle with wedding crashers, life-sized chess board, and a ukele-playing bridesmaid.

And the interest continued as we were ushered from the cocktail room into another building down the hallway, dimly lit with long tables brandishing sturdy hardware. Family style dishes were passed from person to person as gobs of food hit plates, a plethora of homemade breads, fish, stews, and vegetables.

A new open bar opened in one corner bearing Michigan craft beers while another stood opposite with classic drinks. The quiet room began to murmur as guests settled into their food and make conversation.

The maids of honor stood and made speeches about how much they loved their sister but were happy that she found the right man. The best man also stood, stumbled over a speech rift with sexual undertones that at once was funny and awkward for everyone involved.

Then the dance floor opened with the DJ blazing classic rock songs—“You Shook Me All Night Long” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me”—along with recent pop songs.

Everyone hit the dance floor, showing off the best and worst of their moves for hours.

Finally, with throbbing feet, my family ushered me off the dance floor and to the car to head to the destination I would see my next wedding: Korea.
A Korean Wedding

One day, my boss asked if I would like to see a Korean wedding. After weighing the options in my head, I decided sure, for it would be a disappointment to me if I never partook in one during my time in the country.

So one Saturday, I found myself donning the same pair of heels and a nice, lacy green skater dress with a cardigan to suit Korean shoulder-modesty.

“It’s at a university,” my boss explained as she drove us in her sporty little car to a city thirty minutes away. “Most weddings are either in wedding halls or universities on weekends to fit everyone in. Don’t worry about giving them money, I’ve covered you as my guest.”

Gifts at Korean weddings are rarely given. Instead, each guest gives money to “pay for their meal” so to speak. After the wedding, the money is usually divided three ways: the bride gets her friend’s money, the groom gets his friend’s money, and the parents take what their friends gave since usually parents are the ones who pay for the wedding.

We arrived early as my boss was a close friend of the bride’s—they usually show up an hour or so early to see the bridge get ready and take pictures with the photographer. So we marched around the five-story building with a gorgeous ex-newscaster bride wearing a gown that looked like something from a cake-topper.

In an alcove off the side of the venue, the bride took pictures with her family, the groom, and her friends as they waited for the ceremony before theirs to wrap up. I sat on a plush, red settee off to the side watching people clamor for their own pictures and feeling unsure of what to do with myself, a picture of awkward in my own skin.

“Come on,” the bride—whom I had never met called to me in one group photo.

I stammered a no, but she refused to take no for an answer and made me get into pictures that included her four closest friends—all gorgeous women who in some way, shape, or form were involved in the TV industry.

Red-faced from embarrassment, I was happy to make my way into the venue, where tables were set up circling around a long, t-shape stage. My boss snagged a table with some of her childhood friends and I watched as they chatted about their lives in Korean before the lights dimmed and the ceremony started—but the talking did not.

The dimmed lights darkened complete except for the ones focused on the stage. Then, in the back, a spotlight shone on a hand-built tower with a stairwell leading down to the main stage. The bride appeared in one of the open windows of the tower, smiling brightly to her guests before elegantly descending the stairs and making her way across the quite long stage.

In the US, I was used to the focus being on the bride, but this took the cake for me. Every eye and light in the room was focused on her as she slowly walked to her groom. When she finally got to him, they stopped and listened to the commencer—a very famous Korean judge—began to speak on love and the joining together of two people.

“Isn’t she so much prettier than him?” My boss leaned over from her conversation with her friends to ask me. “He’s a lawyer and rich.”

“Oh,” I said, connecting mental dots in her mind, “Is that why she’s marrying him?”

My boss shrugged. “She used to be a newscaster before she was let go for a younger, prettier girl.” My mouth dropped because the bride was one of the most gorgeous women I’d ever seen. “But her family has money—they bought her a new sports car. Her brother—he’s handsome but jobless. She doesn’t need the money but… being a lawyer has some weight to it here because it’s so difficult to pass the exam.”

If any thought of money and status ran through the bride’s own head, though, I couldn’t tell. She looked happy to be joining together with this man. It reminded me of jokes I would make with my friends of trying to hang out in the law school on campus to meet future lawyers, but I didn’t want to ascribe the enchanting bride this hidden agenda.

People continued to talk and play games as the rings were exchanged. The maid of honor came forward to catch the bouquet—an interesting twist on the throwing of it in Korea is that only the maid of honor comes forward to catch the bouquet. Usually a girl who is in a very serious relationship or is engaged is chosen as the maid of honor because there is a superstition that one must get married in six months after catching it or they’ll never get married at all.

The husband’s band came forward and sang them a cute song about love before the lights blinked back on and everyone made their way downstairs for the meal so the next wedding party could have their ceremony.

People sat at banquet-style tables with an array of fish, meats, and drinks already in place before them. People already sitting dug straight into the food.

“People judge a wedding by how good the food is,” my boss told me as we ate. “The older people tend to get angry if the food isn’t good because, in their minds, they paid for it with the wedding gift.”

Luckily for this couple, the food was good. By the time the wedding couple made their entrances—changed from wedding outfits into a smart suit and a cocktail dress—most of the older guests already ate their fill and left. Another wedding party waited at the entrance of the restaurant to be let in.

We thanked the couple, cooed over how beautiful the bride looked, before heading to grab a coffee and go home for the night— a far cry from the nights of dancing I was used to.
An Indian Wedding

“You should wear a sari,” my friend—the bride—told me over message, “You would look good in pink, red or orange.”

Buying the sari was a struggle in itself, finding the right colors and getting blouses made, story enough for another time. Finally, my friend and I landed on hot pink and a pale yellow. But the saris wouldn’t come until later.

By the time we arrived in Kolkata, various wedding festivities had been held over the course of the week, from nights where close friends performed for the bride and groom to informal receptions. We arrived in time for the main festivities, beginning on the bride’s side.

On Friday morning, we were woken from our extremely late flight and dinner to don casual clothes—jeans and blouses for both of us—to make our way to the wedding venue. Girls clad in yellow saris ran around shooting pictures and getting things ready. Old friends and new ones came to greet us in a swarm. No less than three photographers paced the inside of a room with red couches surrounding it and two thrones on a stage in the middle. Later, this would be where the wedding couple received their guests.

For now, it was just some family and close friends. Outside in the courtyard, men worked hard to string up lights and flowers as caterers rushed around to figure out where to put pots and pans. White chairs circled large tables, all centered around a brightly-draped gazebo.

During this two-hour interlude, we chatted and talked until finally a vehicle arrive. Inside were fancily-wrapped gifts for the bride’s family from the groom’s family, including saris, shoes, suits, and a fish. All the girls in their bright yellow saris dashed to help unload the car and tuck the gifts in a safe spot. Then, we had a light brunch provided by the family.

Almost immediately after, in the courtyard, four short poles were propped up with string wrapped around them. We watched in wonder as the bride stepped inside.

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“It’s supposed to represent breaking free of her parents house,” one of the guests informed us as the bride crashed through them, “or something like that.”

Everyone yelled and laughed as turmeric powder was dashed across everyone’s faces.

“It’s supposed to be good luck for getting a husband,” one girl said as she approached me with fingers poised to brush the spice across my face.

“Then I think I’m going to need more,” I told her, half-joking, half-serious as she touched it to my forehead, chin, and nose.

She laughed and danced away to cover the next person.

My friend and I exchanged grins and posed for selfies before being ushered for a multi-course lunch despite our complete lack of appetite—the family must provide food for those in attendance to the ceremonies.

Afterwards, we were dashed back home for a brief period of rest before being draped in our saris and scampering through the city of Kolkata to pick up friends and family.

By the time our car arrived, the wedding already started. People gathered around the gateway entering into the courtyard and throne room dancing in a circle—most of them young people who came early. The wedding would go well into the night, so some people chose to come much later.
Something cut off the celebration and ushered everyone inside, where a friend grabbed my friend to lead me into a back room where the bride put the finishing touches on her gown.

“She’s so unusual, in a good way,” a cousin whispered to me. “Usually the family picks out the bride’s sari, but she designed hers herself. The whole family was very supportive.”

And the bride looked resplendent in a shining blue blouse perfectly offset with the red sari and a purple underskirt. The gold of her layers of jewelry shone brightly against her skin and the material, her eyes were lined with alluring black kohl.

Earlier, the bride had confessed to me that so far she felt nothing different but hoped the ceremony would add weight to this big change in her life. Looking at her confident stature as she moved her bridesmaids around like a commander weilding an army, I thought that even if she felt nothing, she would be fine. She looked happy.

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Somehow, we all ended up ushered outside into the courtyard to mingle with guests as the bride and groom went through ceremonies on the stage involving the elders of the bride’s family. On the night of the bride’s wedding, it is only the bride’s family and friends. The groom is allowed to invite his immediate family and closest friends only to the ceremony and vice versa for the night at his home.

Waiters walked around bearing trays with food—brothy soups, friend chicken and vegetables, coffees and teas. No alcohol inside—it was explained that for drinking, once the ceremonies were finished, people would head outside to set up drinks near their cars in makeshift bars.

The bride’s younger sister reserved a verbal lashing to any waiter getting the details wrong. “I’m making sure everything is right,” she said. She was young, not even out of high school yet, but began to show some of that inner confidence that marked her sister apart.

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At certain points of the ceremony, people gathered around to take pictures, at others people milled about in groups talking and catching up on life. Many were high school friends of the bride’s and it was like a reunion. The ceremonies stretched hours of bowing and talking.

“It’s hard,” my friend and I lamented at one point as we tried to catch a moment of sitting. “Talking to people for so long.”

Indeed, it was the most social event I had ever been to. I couldn’t imagine ever having to network in India—the amount of talking involved would have been astronomical.

I grabbed a piece of chicken just as the bride and groom were ushered into chairs and lifted up by a few brave groomsmen and toted in a circle. The bride clutched at her chair both laughing and terrified until they had to lei each other with a flower garland. Everyone gathered around to watch the jilting movements with trepidation: would one of them fall?
“I saw someone fall once,” a guy told me with a wince, “No one was gathered around that side, either, so she just hit the ground.”

This bride was lucky. People gathered in a complete circle around her, ready to catch her if she slipped. Finally they managed the feat of circling a flower garland around their necks and the robust male friends lowered them to the ground, each slick with sweat.

A few more ceremonies, and the bride and groom went inside to take their places on the thrones and to greet each guest who came to them with a smile and a glamorous photograph while accepting gifts from each one.

Exhausted, I clutched my friend for a hug behind and congratulated her very lucky husband before being whisked back off home.

The next day was a day of rest as the bride and groom settled into their home, but the following day brought another flurry of activity.

My friend returned home on a late flight and I was ushered to the bride’s home to witness the last of the presents for the groom’s family being wrapped and found from various nooks and crannies around the house. A detailed list of more than eighty names and exactly what gift should be included kept everything in line.

As soon as the last of the gifts was loaded into the vehicle, we set off again, this time to the newlyweds home to eat snacks and chat before the next ceremonies. Everyone lounged around lazily as I took the opportunity to catch up a bit on the life of my friend.

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Soon, we were ushered again to the courtyard of the groom’s ceremonies. This time, for the ceremony, the bride made a plate for the elders in the family to eat before everyone dined on fish, dal, and rice.

Another evening ceremony would follow, but for me, I had to catch a late flight back to work.

There were a lot of differences between the three weddings. Each one had pagantry and traditions of its own that are hard to compare.

American Wedding Tips
-For a gift, you can bring either a gift or give money
-Be prepared to dance in comfy shoes
-Dress code varies, but a nice dress or slacks never hurt anyone

Korean Wedding Tips
-Gifts are uncommon. Usually you would give money to “pay for your meal”—and give it directly to whoever is collecting the bride or groom’s money because otherwise it’ll go straight to the parents.
-The way people dress varies—usually smart casual

Indian Wedding Tips
-A gift is more common to give than money
-Most of the wedding is a social event—be prepared to talk
-Dress glam. Everyone will be in their best saris and you don’t want to be the odd one out

Unfortunately, I lost my photos from the last American wedding (it’s been almost 3 years since I’ve been in America) and Korean wedding I went to about a year ago.

Do you have any interesting cultural wedding experiences? Or any more tips?

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Getting Sari Blouses Made in India: The Strange Situation

Essays, India, Jaipur, Travel Tips, Uncategorized

It was the exact type of experience in India I knew to steer far clear of.

But it’s amazing what little sleep, just wanting to get a job done, and wanting to get on with things will do to someone. I’m still not sure if it’s an experience I regret doing… it’s just something that happened.

On our last day in Delhi, my friend and I spent hours shopping for saris but didn’t have enough time to get blouses made before jetting off to Jaipur for the next few days. Our hostel sent a rickshaw to pick us up at the airport and when he heard that we needed sari blouses, he was all for helping us out.

Planning My Trip to India: The Timeline

India, Travel Tips, Uncategorized

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It all started a little bit more than a year before my second departure to India. A friend inviting me to her wedding that would be the next year. By grace, things lined up perfectly that I was able to go though no plans started getting set in stone until October.

Being the planner that I am, I spent quite a bit of time researching what I wanted to do and see. At first, I was positive I would fly from Delhi to Darjeeling, then to Kolkata for the wedding. Then I thought Kochi and the backwaters of Kerala. Then I started looking at pictures of camels in the desert. Finally, I decided on Delhi (got to see the Taj Mahal, I figured), and the recommended city of Jaipur (which I would 100% recommend). The deserts and backwaters and tea fields can wait until my next trip.

I did have to be careful with getting my e-TV visa. If you know nothing about this visa, it’s basically a document that you print from online that allows you to travel anywhere in India for 30 days, although you can only enter from specific airports. You need to have it a few days before you leave and can’t apply for it more than a month before your arrival date.

I thought that maybe someone would find it helpful to see how long it took me to plan for this trip in case they, too, are worried that they are an over-planner.

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Budgeting a Trip to India

Agra, Delhi, India, Jaipur, Travel Tips, Uncategorized

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I hope this chart is helpful for you in planning your own trip to India! I’m a major budgeting/planner and I love to have an idea of how much money I could possibly spend in a country. This budget is on the higher end with me not wanting to spend more than $1,500. We really weren’t concerned with how much we were spending and were free to shop and go to as many attractions as we wanted (which really isn’t hard in India). We also traveled more for the specific purpose of going to a wedding. As guests, our housing was covered for the days we were there and we spent our free day just relaxing with a movie at a mall.

Sari Shopping: Tips for Bargaining in India

Agra, Delhi, Essays, India, Jaipur, Travel Tips, Uncategorized

We shoved our way down crowded back alleys as men lugged crates larger than themselves on their shoulders. Everywhere we turned, there was something bright and glittery to see: the sari or saree, depending on where you are.

A brief walk from Chandni Chowk Station, with large signs to guide our way, the market was filled with the brightly colored garments, along with beautiful lehengas. We started walking the main road before making our way further in.

“Well,” I said as we made our back to the main road, “I guess we’ll need to go in somewhere.”

We passed by more storefronts with mannequins made up in dazzling, bejeweled saris. Some of these were the same ones we went past twice.

Finally we came to a store, took a deep breath and opened the door as we slipped off our shoes.

The faces of a family picking out a bridal gown from their positions on the plushly matted floor stared up at us. Everything in me wanted to turn back out.

“We’re looking for saris,” I told a man who came to ask what he could do for us, “for a wedding.”

“Well, you’ve come to the right place,” he said as he ushered us to the back of the narrow room, tip-toeing past the family, with shelves stacked high with saris. He had us sit down, one on the mat, one on a small wooden stool. “Have you ever worn a sari?”

My friend shook her head no, and I nodded vaguely—three years ago, I remembered, being in a friends house being draped in the thick, purple and green sari over my blouse and pants—but did that really count?

“Well, up up,” he said.

I motioned for my friend to follow his instructions and another man came forward with a rope to tie the sari onto her waist. He draped it with expert fashion, pulling it through his hands to make folds once, twice, three times, more times than I could count.

“This is an easy sari,” he said. “The skirt is already draped, so the only thing she’d have to worry about is the piece that goes over the shoulder.”

It was true—a brooch rested on the waist that gathered the fabric into pre-folds.

“It would be easy for me to put on myself back home,” my friend said as she admired herself in a mirror.

I snapped photos and eyed a pile of lehengas in a corner.

The man followed my gaze and I asked, “Could I wear a lehenga to a wedding?”

What to Pack for India

Agra, Delhi, Essays, India, Jaipur, Travel Tips, Uncategorized

Through the winding back streets of the spice market, my friend led me to a hidden set of stairs she visited the previous day on a walking tour.

“We can see down into the mosque from the roof,” she said as we climbed flight after flight of stairs with large, open windows overlooking a residential area.

“Are you sure we can be up here?” I asked—I asked the same thing when we entered a hotel a few minutes before for the purpose of washing our hands.

She waved me off, “It’s fine, it’s fine. We did it yesterday.”

On the third floor, a man stood peering out the window and halfway turned to watch us as we continued our journey.

Finally on the roof, we were met with a remarkable view over the entire market, the mosque, the people int he distance, and the rows of spices down below. The man followed us.

A few other tourists milled about with large, expensive cameras shooting the concrete landscape.
One’s guide roughly shoved his backpack into his hands. “Don’t leave this lying around,” he said. “Someone could steal it.”

We climbed onto a huge concrete platform to get an even better view of the city as all left but one man and the man who followed us.

I stood on one side of the platform taking pictures until I heard my friend explain, “Hey! Why is your light on?”

Indeed, the man who followed us was boldly trailing after my friend with the flashlight on his phone turned on—to peer through her skirt.

“Hey,” I said, “Leave her alone.”