Monthly Archives: January 2012

Everybody out! Two exits! No waiting! (Preparations Part 2)


Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Delhi belly, the Bombay blues, the Trivandrum trots, the Erukkancheri evacuation, no matter what you call it, traveler’s diarrhea is crappy. But there are ways to minimize the effects and possibly avoid it all together with a little preparation before you leave, and some rules while you are traveling.

Now here is a disclaimer right off the top. I am not a doctor, a nurse, or any other type of medical professional (although I have seen a few episodes of House MD and once played Milton Bradley’s Operation™, so that might count for something). Always check with your doctor before starting any medication, fitness regiment, or lifestyle change.

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Most of the incidents of stomach problems come from ingesting tainted food, but also keep in mind that your system is used to your local surroundings and not those of your destination. I know a few people from India who said they got sick while visiting Canada, so it does go both ways.

A really really good forum post on this topic (by a doctor) is in IndiaMike and is here.

Probiotics can be obtained at any drug store or health food shop, but the bitters he is talking about can be a little harder to find. I used a tablet form of the bitters from a company called Bliss Ayurveda and their product Allerflu Gaurd. The product is sold for cold and flu prevention, but it contains the Andrographis paniculata and Holy Basil that is discussed in the post.

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I followed this advice, taking the probiotics three months before and the bitters six weeks before, and then both everyday during the trip. I didn’t have any problems at all in Nepal (where Lonely Planet describes the water as lethal), and with the exception of a short bout of upset stomach in Pondicherry, India was the same. Keep in mind that my constitution is pretty good and I don’t get sick very often, which may have also helped, so you should check with your doctor or a travel clinic for other prevention and remedy methods.

Your other weapon against any gastronomic malfeasance is cleanliness and plain common sense. Drink only sealed bottled or treated water with no ice cubes, and stick to well known brands of bottled water if you can. Good brands include Bisleri, Aquafina, Kinley, and Qua. Chai and coffee are generally safe too because they have to boil the water to make them.

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Other things to remember to do is wash your hands and use a hand sanitizer, keep your mouth closed when you shower, brush your teeth with the same water that you drink. Stay away from fruits and vegetables that you can’t peel. Oranges and bananas are usually safe, apples and grapes, not so much. Eat at restaurants that are clean and busy (the deserted restaurant is more likely to leave food out), watch out for street vendors who have food left out, if you see them cook it in front of you, especially if it’s deep fried, you’re generally safe. If you feel that your food may be suspect, just don’t eat it.

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Be vigilant with cleanliness and keep things sanitary. As a trip wears on, you may tend to let your guard down and eat a samosa that’s been sitting out and wash it down with some river water, and that’s when you’ll get hit.

As far as medication goes, if there is a brand of cold medicine that you like or an antihistamine that works really well for you, bring it (keep it in it’s original packaging for airport security). Pharmacies, or chemists, are readily available in the big cities and even the smaller towns, but they don’t carry everything that western drug stores do. For instance, antacids are nowhere to be found, and suppositories just don’t exist in South Asia (a chemist in Kathmandu told me “Oh no sir, we don’t put ANYTHING up there”).

The medication that I brought with me were, Malarone, Immodium, antihistamines, the aforementioned probiotics and bitters, gravol, and some Polysporin ointment. I also brought a basic first aid kit that contained bandages, scissors, tweezers, and other handy medical stuff. Add a box of alcohol swabs/wipes to your pack as well which can be used to disinfect and clean small cuts and any suspect glasses or cutlery.

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There are lots of cute and cuddly animals over there too. Dogs, cats, and monkeys roam the streets in a lot of areas and almost all of them are strays. They usually keep a respectful distance from you, and you should do the same.

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Lastly, know yourself and your tendencies. If you have a delicate stomach, or an allergy, or asthma, take precautions and talk to your doctor or the staff at a travel clinic. The latter has big databases full of info on specific areas and the health hazards you could face.

However, if you’re careful with your water and food, you can enjoy everything that these countries have to offer.

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So you want to go to India and Nepal… (Preparations Part 1)


Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

For those of you who had been following my adventures in South Asia and may be thinking of traveling to India or Nepal while saying things like “Hey! That looks like fun! I’ll go next week” or “I’ve been to Brandon, I’m sure Kathmandu is about the same” or “I’ve had the Butter Chicken from the Michelina brand of frozen entrees, I can do India”, slow down there Backpack Betty, you may want to take a breath.

This was my first time in India and Nepal (In fact it is my first time outside of North America since the early eighties), and I’m not a super seasoned traveler, but I would be remiss if I didn’t pass on the things I learned before, while, and after traveling.

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First off, and I can’t stress this enough, do some research. India is a pretty big country. Area wise, it’s almost as big as the Hudson’s Bay. And a few people live there as well. In fact one in six of EVERY person on the earth lives there. This makes the country incredibly diverse. Climate, language, architecture, cuisine, and railway track gauges are quite different in southern India in comparison to the north. Nepal is a country that is at the beginning of it’s rebirth (hopefully), just emerging from a ten year civil war.

So you’ve got some reading to do.

There are many many books and resources to choose from, and I can’t say one way or the other which ones are better, but here’s where I got most of my information:

1) The Lonely Planet Guide to India: this is a wealth of information about the country and is a great guide to carry with you on the trip (if you can get an ebook it will save you about four pounds in your pack). I used it more when I was in country (the Kathmandu valley edition was invaluable) than I did before, but it gives you a great place to start.

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It is however, REALLY opinionated at times and can be dreadfully out of date. Even though the latest edition was published in September 2011. Don’t believe any of the prices for attractions or hotels. Once a business knows that they are in the guide, their prices tend to skyrocket. It wasn’t uncommon to find a hotel that was recommended in the guide was ten times more expensive than listed.

But what IS useful are the maps to attractions (Mumbai), lists of scams and tout behaviour (Agra and New Delhi), etiquette (Pondicherry and Haridwar) and where the nearest bathroom is (Kathmandu). There is also a website that has some extra information, but with the exception of user feedback, it’s mostly just a re-hash of what is in the books.

2) There are a multitude of other sites on the net that are useful. www.IndiaMike.com is an enormous forum that contains a wealth of information from people traveling to India, and those living there. Everything from Hotel reviews to how to cross the street in New Delhi are contained in the documents section, and there are thousands of pictures from every part of the country.

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Make sure that you check the date of posts there though, some of the information is dreadfully out of date. Anything dated before 2008, you should take with a grain of salt because India is changing so fast, that regulations, prices, and even place names may be vastly different now than 4 years ago. But, if you have really specific questions about any aspect of India, IndiaMike is the place to ask. Membership to the forums is free and well worth it.

3) A plethora of travel booking sites are available on the Internet, and most come with user reviews and rating guides. The ones I used the most were Travel Advisor, Must See India, and Clear Trip, but I did all of my booking through Clear Trip because it is the only site that also lets you book hotels, plane tickets and India Rail tickets (which is huge) and I never had a problem with it on the entire trip. (Update: there have been some changes to Clear Trip’s train bookings since I first wrote this which you can read about here).

4) I also kept an eye on various news sites from Asia (this was especially important for Nepal to keep an eye on the political situation in the country). The Times Of India, The Hindustani Times, and the Himalayan Times (Nepal) were the news sites that I frequented, and you can also use Google news alerts to keep yourself informed.

5) Registration with government travel sites is a good idea as well, so embassies know your whereabouts in case there is trouble. Most government websites offer services that send e-mail travel alerts and information about various countries. Both the government of Canada and the U.S. Department of State have great websites with a lot of travel information.

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If you are just traveling to Nepal and are flying, you have to enter through Kathmandu. Be aware, before booking plane tickets, that some countries that service Nepal by air (India included) require transit visas BEFORE you go. When I went, there were only a few different countries from which you could connect to Kathmandu through, but that is supposed to change and there may be more direct flights now.

You will also need a passport sized photo taken which will be required for the visa to enter the country. Do yourself a favour and take a few with you before you go, otherwise you will be required to get one taken there. The Nepal visa is available at the airport and costs $25 US dollars for a 15 day visa, $30 for a 40 day visa, and $100 for a 90 day visa. Info on entering Nepal is available here.

You should also consider bringing some US Currency with you (I brought $50 in one dollar bills and $50 in fives and tens) so you can pay this fee and to buy Nepalese rupees, which are almost impossible to get outside of the country. Make sure you keep all of your receipts when changing money because there are very strict rules about changing it back when you leave. Also make sure that you DO NOT bring any 500 or 1000 Indian Rupee bills into Nepal, they are illegal.

ATMs are everywhere in the Thamel area of Kathmandu, but in the more rural areas they can be harder to come by and not all ATMs take all cards. In addition to cash, a few different credit cards and bank cards are advisable and I took $100 in travelers’ cheques too just in case (which I never used in Nepal).

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Getting into India is a whole different animal. A visa is required BEFORE you leave on your trip. There is a needlessly complicated process that you have to go through to get the visa, starting with an online application through a third party company called VFS Global services. Apply for the visa about a month before you want to go.

The application process is a little frustrating due to contradictory information on the application and the website. The website and the application clearly state that the visa should be obtained before you make travel arrangements such as airline tickets or hotel reservations, yet they also require a detailed itinerary and a contact address where you are staying! My advice is to buy your plane ticket before hand and have a rough itinerary ready, and include a hotel address and phone number for a contact address.

You should also contact VFS directly for advice on how to fill out your online form, the ladies in the Winnipeg branch were very helpful in all respects. I was also unfortunate enough to be applying for my visa just as the entire process was being switched to a computerized system and they may had not removed all of the bugs from it.

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Then there is the controversial question about shots and meds. I know a lot of people who think that travel clinics are a scam and immunization against various diseases is an unnecessary cash grab by pharmaceutical companies. I tend to lean towards the better safe than sorry side and I got the full regiment of shots including boosters for tetanus and polio. Malaria is treated with a daily pill that you take just before you go, while you are there, and for a short period when you return. I took the Malarone option which is the most expensive, but the least prone to side effects.

If you choose to get the shots, be prepared to shell out a fair amount of cash, and book an appointment at a travel clinic at least three weeks before you go.

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Lastly in your pre-trip planning, there is travel insurance. Don’t be a dumb-ass. Get travel insurance, especially if you are traveling to Nepal where medical services are scarce. A trip and fall on a path while in rural Nepal might result in a broken bone and require you to be airlifted off of the side of a mountain, which will cost thousands and thousands of dollars. Check with your bank, airline, and credit card companies to see what you are already covered for, but don’t even consider entering Nepal without it.

Once you get your visa, plane tickets, shots, and research your trip, there is the question of what to pack… which will be the subject of the next post.

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