Browsing Posts tagged India

Delhi Flickr photos by jepoirrier

There are some places in this hemisphere that have some bad air, like Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Lima. But they’ve got nothing on the smoking guns of Asia, which make these places look like a blue-sky island.

But where is the worst place to take in a lungful really? That’s not an easy question because it depends on how  you measure it. This recent study says India is the most polluted country, even in rural areas. Part of that is due to the increasing number of their blue-smoke-belching vehicles on the road and almost no restrictions in place. The attitude from this guy quoted in the piece says volumes.

“D. Saha, a scientist in the ‘Air Lab’ at India’s Central Pollution Control Board said the study’s findings were not a matter of huge concern. ‘It is a non-issue, we have other pressing problems like poverty, focus on them.'”

Delhi is only the 3rd-most-polluted city in the country says this article. Delhi was beat out by two places I’ve thankfully never been to and will be sure to avoid: Ludhiana and Kanpur.

But what about China? Time magazine says Linfen, China is the most ungodly place to breathe in a lungful and the World Bank reported in the past that 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China.

Beijing Flickr photo by kevin dooley

The problem, as this evaluation from The Guardian notes, you can’t compare a country that releases accurate data (most of the developed world) with one that’s famous for releasing inaccurate reports—like China. The poor people who have to spend their whole lives breathing the air in China are starting to complain more loudly, however, and calling b.s. on the rosy government air reports. Many expats and locals who can read English rely more on the Twitter feed from the U.S. Embassy there. (Hint, it usually reads “hazardous” or “unhealthy.) The pollution is so bad there we’ve taken to measuring it from space.

If you look at this list from the World Health Organization of the worst cities, you probably weren’t planning to go to any of them anyway: half are in Iran and Pakistan.

In the U.S., some spots are far worse than others. Apart from a few geographic oddities like southern California and Salt Lake City, the most polluted places tend to be the ones where coal-fired power plants are prevalent. So you’ve got your industrial heartland around Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia, plus places like East Tennessee and central Alabama. Then there’s the city that defined urban sprawl—Houston—and a compact one jammed with people—New York. See the full list here from the American Lung Association and some analysis from Forbes.

Today’s guest post is from a book author who has written for me on several occasions in Perceptive Travel. See the link at the end for the book and blog from Jim Johnston, but he’s just back from India and is giving us the scoop on current prices there. As I noted recently, it’s a good time to visit India if you’re a budget traveler because the U.S. dollar is fetching 50 rupees. So not only is the math easier, but this has made a bargain destination even cheaper. Take it away Jim!

The extremes of poverty and wealth in India make thoughts about money complicated. One of the clearest statements came from Ashish, our guide in Lucknow. Few tourists visit the place and he was thrilled to be showing off his hometown. In the narrow lanes of the oldest part of the city we visited a small workshop where two young men were pounding out silver leaf with heavy wooden mallets. Each square took 15 hours of pounding to make it thin enough to eat-the silver is used to adorn pastries and candies. Each man earned about two dollars for a full day of hammering.

“They do not earn money,” Ashish explained. “No one earns money. You are given the money by God, so what you have is what you are supposed to have.”

What God has given me felt like an awful lot in India, one of the world’s great travel bargains. In fact, you could probably travel on less than $10 a day without much effort (although I wouldn’t want to see where you’d sleep).

The contrasts are striking: you can eat a full vegetarian meal for 75 cents, or go down the block and blow 75 dollars eating at a 5-star hotel. In Lucknow, two of us ate dinner, went to a movie, and had dessert afterwards-and spent under $5 US total. In Jaipur we went to a restaurant that had just opened the day before and were served a huge tandoori meal-for free, to celebrate the new business we were told. If you do splurge at fancy hotels or restaurants, expect to see luxury taxes added to your bill, which can be as high as 25 percent of the total bill.

Hotel prices run the gamut from a few dollars to a few thousand. Cheapest accommodations won’t be found on the internet—just walk around to find them. Clean, good-sized rooms with private baths can be found in most places for under $30. A splurge at the spectacular Bissau Palace Hotel in Jaipur was just $60 a night. Mumbai is notable for the lack of good value in hotels: our $20 hotel in Ahmedabad was larger, cleaner and more attractive than our $60 dump in Mumbai.

Air transportation within India is reasonable. A one-way flight from Mumbai to Delhi, for example, is about $65. The websites and offer bookings for low-cost airlines throughout India.

Indian Trains are a bargain, too, although the comfort level varies greatly according to class. You can buy tickets in advance (with a U.S. credit card) from and even get a refund if you change plans. Trains fill up fast in India, so it’s best to plan ahead. [Editor’s note – see this review of a fun e-book on the Indian Railway system.]

Long distance buses are even cheaper than trains, and it’s easier to get a last-minute seat, although it requires a trip to the bus station to buy tickets. A 130 km (3.5 hours) bus ride in Rajasthan cost us three dollars.

Hiring a car and driver is a great way to get around. We did it a few times, and it averaged about $50 per day, including gas and tolls. If you don’t return to your starting point, expect to pay the cost of the driver to get back home.

Local commuter trains are very cheap. In Mumbai we paid 15 rupees for a half hour ride. A cost of the Delhi metro varies from 10 to 28 rupees, depending on distance.

A 90-minute taxi ride to the airport in Mumbai was 350 rupees (around $7). In Jaipur, a one hour cab ride (includes waiting time) cost 200 rupees. Our taxi from the Kolkata train station to south of city (30 minutes) was 150 rupees ($3). Most short-distance rides within cities will be a dollar or two.

Foreigners are often charged at different rates than locals, and it’s best to let go of any resentment about the fact as soon as possible. “We call it ‘skin tax’ here,” an Indian friend told me. “Most people assume foreigners are rich so it’s OK to ask them for more money.” If you start to feel uncomfortable about it, remember what you paid for your flight to India, which might amount to several years’ wages of the person who is “cheating” you.

Some taxi and rickshaw drivers refuse to use their meters and will quote inflated prices to foreigners (be sure to agree on the price ahead of time), but even these prices are usually cheap by U.S. standards. Many museums and monuments have entry fees that can range from 200 to 500 rupees for foreigners (only 10 to 20 for Indians). Entry to the Taj Mahal costs a whopping 750 rupees for foreigners.

Here’s a sampling of other prices around India. At the time of writing, January 2012, 50 rupees = $1:

Bowl of cut-up fruit (papaya) 10R
Fish with hard boiled egg and rice 40R
Dosa 15R
Apple milk 10R
Pani puri (snack food) 6 for 20R
Vegetarian thali lunch for two with bottled water 180R
Café Coffee Day (a chain selling good coffee) 70R
Chai from street stall 5 to 10R
Liter of water 15R

Shave and haircut 40 – 160R
Public urinals: free (most of these for men only)
Reserved balcony seat in movie theater 100R
Laundry in deluxe hotel: pants 30R, shirt 20R
Laundry in cheap hotel: 30 to 40R per kilo
Internet 10 to 20R hour
Massage on the ghat in Varanasi 400R

Hand embroidered Kashmiri shawl 2000R
Doberman puppy 10,000R male, 9,000R female

Daily wage for agricultural worker 30R

Jim Johnston, writer and artist, lives in Mexico City. His blog is

If you had India on your short list or you’re planning how fast to get there on your round-the-world journey, take a look at the exchange rate right now and that might sway you.

In the quirky way that world currency markets work, Europe’s troubles are the U.S. dollar’s gains, despite all the problems on this home front. So while it may be short-lived, we’ve entered one of those periods where this is a good time to visit some countries because you can get a lot more for your money on the ground.

Take a look at that chart above. You don’t see a dramatic spike like that very often and when you do it spells big opportunity—an imbalance that hasn’t had time to right itself. Prices haven’t risen in rupees, but you’re getting a lot more rupees for your dollars.

After moving in a fairly narrow range from 44 to 46 most of the past two years, the rate is now more than 52 to the dollar. That’s an 18 percent rise from the bottom. Plus in India you really can buy something for that 8 rupees extra. A few samosas at least. A cup of tea on the street. Or a bunch of bananas.

Or look at it this way: that extra 8 rupees the tuk-tuk driver is trying to charge you isn’t worth stressing about. You just got it as a bonus.

India was already near the top of the list of the cheapest places to travel in the world. If you’re traveling with dollars, it’s looking even better right now.

Margot Bigg is a freelance journalist and author. After working as an editor in Paris, she moved to India where she joined the staff of Time Out Delhi and turned to writing full-time. Her articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers across the world, including Rolling Stone India, Outlook Traveller, The Caravan, Courrier International, The Times of India, and The Oregonian.

She knows a lot about one of the World’s Cheapest Destinations: India She’s the author of Moon Living Abroad in India, a guide for expats moving to the country, and a contributing writer of Fodor’s Essential India.

I hit her up for some answers on what involved in living in that madhouse country.

1) Despite all the luxury hotels and a rising middle class, India is still a pretty cheap place to travel for those on a budget. What are monthly living prices like for the average expat who’s not expecting a penthouse in Mumbai?

It depends entirely on the city. An expat without dependents would need around Rs 50,000 per month ($1,100) to have a reasonably comfortable experience in Delhi. Bangalore’s a bit more expensive, and Mumbai rents in decent areas are on par with many Westerns cities. Students could get by on considerably less, as could people staying in smaller cities or towns.

2) What are some of the most desirable areas for foreigners to live in India if they don’t have to be chained to a desk working for an international company?

Goa is a hotspot for artisans from around the world, and there’s a large community of self-made expats there. The southern state of Kerala attracts fewer foreigners, although it’s arguably more pleasant. Auroville, an “intentional community” (read: commune) near Pondichery in Tamil Nadu is also popular with foreigners, although as it’s an established community, it’s not the kind of place you can just land up in. Pondichery itself is also popular, especially with the French. The hills of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are also nice, and Dharmsala in particular attracts foreign visitors interested in studying Tibetan Buddhism (as it’s the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile).

3) In your research, what kinds of jobs are expats doing there?

Along with the diplomats, journalists and international organisation employees, you also meet a lot of people working in social enterprise, offshoring, tech support, fashion, education, and hospitality. More and more foreigners are moving to India to start their own businesses and I know of expats who own health clubs, hair salons, interior design firms, travel agencies, and plenty of restaurants.

4) How’s the infrastructure coming along for mobile workers who just need a laptop, reliable electricity, and a good internet connection?

It’s coming along quite well in most places. Public electricity can be an issue, so you need to ensure you have backup electricity. You can get either a generator or an inverter (and set your device so that it switches on as soon as the public power switches off. Internet is generally reliable, although beware that if you exceed your monthly download limit, some providers will slow down your service for the remainder of the billing cycle.

5) Tell us what’s involved in getting a resident visa or working visa in India. How do you stay for longer than six months?

You have to apply for an employment visa under the sponsorship of your country at the embassy of your country of residence before leaving for India. Employment visas normally last one year and can be renewed in India. You’ll be asked to submit detailed contract and employer information along with your visa application. Specific requirements can vary and change, so it’s best to check with your local embassy or consulate. You’ll also be required to register for a residency permit within 14 days of your arrival in India.

6) I remember lots of grizzled backpackers in Manali and Goa who had stayed long past their exit date and I guess they were hoping for amnesty someday. What happens if you overstay your tourist visa?

Don’t let this happen. If it does, you will need to report to the FRRO (Foreigners Regional Registration Office) as soon as you can. They will grant you an exit visa, but you may never be allowed back in the country again and you could face deportation. If you are deported, you may have a difficult time returning to India or getting visas for other countries in the future. Again, I can’t stress this enough, do not overstay your visa.

7) You’re going to teleport into India to eat a grand meal wherever you want. What’s on your plate?

I’d probably have my all-time favourite Indian dish: jackfruit cooked with savoury spices.(kathal ki subzi). As jackfruit is one of those things people either love or hate, you’re more likely to come across it in a home cooked meal than at a restaurant. I’d also be happy with an aloo parantha, a spiced flatbread stuffed with potatoes and served with curd and spicy Indian pickle. It’s traditionally a breakfast food and tastes best with a sugary cup of spicy masala chai.

See more details from Margot about traveling and living in India as well as more info on the book.


Hidden treasure in India

Courtesy of The Week magazine, here are some Friday Factoids for your happy hour chatter on travel and life.

* China is now the third-most visited nation in the world, after France in the U.S., up 19% in 2009.

* Thailand has its first female prime minister, the sister of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawata (figurehead of the Red Shirts rioters)

* The average British tourist gains eight pounds during a two-week trip to the U.S. thanks to big portions and all-you-can-eat buffets. (London Daily Mail)

* The poorest fifth of Americans spend around 42 percent of their incomes on transportation. For middle-income Americans, it’s 22 percent. (Wired)

* After a crackdown on illegal immigration in the U.S. state of Georgia, farmers report 11,000 unfilled jobs.

* The total tax burden on Americans in 2009, as a percentage of GDP, was 24 percent. Canadians pay 31 percent, Britons 34 percent, Germans 37 percent, and the French 37 percent. (Toronto Globe & Mail)

* In the vaults of a Hindu temple in the state of Kerala, in India, investigators found $22 billion dollars worth of treasure: diamonds, gems, and gold coins.

* Good luck getting a manicure in Alabama: in Alaska a license to be a manicurist requires 12 hours of training. In Alabama, it requires 700 hours. (Wall Street Journal)


Quote of the month:
Take the course opposite to custom and you will almost always do well. – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Happy travels!