Hitchhiking in India – the (even more) practical side of things – Part 2

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Hitchhiking is much more than hopping on and off stranger’s cars, it is often a game of roads and hard-shoulders, camping spots, roadside showers and food or water hunting. The road is a labyrinth filled with tasks and trials, where the hitchhiker needs to learn the rules once and again after each and every border. If in the menial things of life one can sometimes find adventure, then hitchhiking in India is a guarantee to it.

This is the second part of our hitchhiking guide to India (<– if you missed it, the link will take you there). If the previous lot of tips dealt with maps, roads, transport and stuff that is of direct concern to the hitchhiker, this one gathers some ideas to explore the most mundane side of a journey in the subcontinent. We must confess that precisely while hitchhiking around India, the place that is often seen as budget-travellers-paradise, for several reasons too long to explain, we went a bit above our average travel budget of 3,3 Euros per day. One disadvantage of this is that we got to sleep more under roofs than under the stars, while in any case this did not prevent a snake from crawling into our bed. But what matters is that the wanna-be-advices that you are about to read cover a wider range of options, and therefore may be of help to both those that are ready to travel in a raw manner as well as others who may need a bit of comfort (just a bit) after an exhausting day thumbing around. A journey to this country of diversity can be as simple or as luxurious as one wishes to make it, hitchhiking around it and sleeping on floors is just one way to see this part of the world.

Disclaimer: even more than the previous part, you will soon realize that this post is in no way a travel guide, neither proper advice for budget backpacking in India, although some of the tips may well serve any traveller. It is just a compilation of tips and experiences for the simple hitchhikers and those that will spend most of the time searching by the roadside a way to, and around, this mighty country. May it be helpful!

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7. Sleeping options while hitchhiking in India

Sleeping outside is accepted in India and practiced by millions of people on an everyday basis, but usually only by the poor. We did encounter a few issues when trying to sleep outdoors or in public places, namely the concern of others over our safety and/or the curiosity of those around us.

Camping

Camping is possible pretty much anywhere as long as you find an empty, clean and quiet spot (good luck!). Along the mountain tracks there are even areas to camp (and little stalls or dhabas to buy food) and in other areas, specially in populated ones, it is sometimes a good idea to ask if one can camp in the yard of a guesthose, home, school, etc. At times it can be arranged that for a small fee one can make use of their facilities (like shower and toilet). Wherever one camps, it is wise to watch out for intruders opening the tent at dawn or dusk, for monkeys stealing food, for insects (as usual) and for snakes (really, beware of the snakes!).

Public spaces

In India it is common to sleep in train and bus stations. Families gather in groups on benches or on the floor, sleeping over mats and blankets. And you can do the same, if you do not mind the crowd. In train stations you can try the first-class waiting room, which is often a bit emptier. In some bus stations it is also possible to crush for a few hours, while in others we were prevented from spending the night by concerned authorities and security guards.

Temples and religious festivities

Temples sometimes offer free (or very cheap) accommodation to pilgrims. Sikh Gurudwaras are quite well known for their free dormitories and in Hindu pilgrimage towns one can ask for the “dharamsala”. During festivals and religious celebrations people often sleep in designated outdoor areas (or in tents if lucky), and it is possible for you to do the same. However, in case you opt for the latter you can anticipate a large amount of attention, so if you really wish to sleep it might not be the best option; otherwise you will surely have an entertaining evening. It goes without saying that in religious places and gatherings local norms should be followed and customs observed, to avoid situations that can be perceived as disrespectful; watching around and asking when in doubt is usually the wisest thing to do.

Other free options

We have spent nights in community centers, schools, random buildings, a highway toll office and even a police station. As long as you are not picky, you will definitely find some place to sleep a few hours at least.

Local hospitality

We’ve heard that couchsurfing  works in India for many people, mostly in big cities. We also saw there were a few members of Trustroots. But hospitality networks did not work for us; maybe because we were travelling with a cat, we can’t blame our non-hosts. But we did get hosted by people who picked us up or met us somewhere, mostly while travelling in Manipur and Mizoram, and their kindness and hospitality were outstanding. We were also hosted by friends we had met years before and the families of our friends, and we got to spent wonderful long amounts of time with them. A few times we were offered places by people who read about us in the news or followed our blog, but unfortunately we never got to meet them, either because they were on the other end of the country, or because we never seemed to catch them at home by the time we reached their region (we can’t blame them, it often took us months). In any case, Indians have a well-known saying: “Atiti devo bhava” (guest are gifts from god) and pride in their hospitality, which – as usual – is the hitchhiker’s duty to enjoy without abusing.

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Unakoti (Tripura). We were trying to spend the night between temples, pilgrims and pujas, but it got really (really!) crowded by 2 a.m

 

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Burma (and Marta) sleep just anywhere.
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For a while we turned CS hosts thanks to a tiny room-kitchen-shower in Cherrapunjee (Meghalaya).

 Paid accommodation

The range of paid options is too wide to be covered in a paragraph, so we will just mention the few things that worked best for us:

  • Bed in dormitory (100 – 150 INR) They usually exist in the Government run “tourist lodges” or in “youth hostels” (which can actually be found in really random and not necessarily touristic small towns) as well as in train stations. Sometimes there is an option to use the kitchen. The only issue is that unless there are separate “male” and “female” dormitories couples might not be allowed to stay together even if the place is empty, AND, if there are no separate sections, female travellers might not be allowed in the general dormitory as long as there is any male guest already in it (sometimes even if the manager considers that a male guest may arrive during the night). It is a sort of discrimination and matter of luck. Finding their contacts online and calling to reserve in advance might be a good option if one can guess the arrival time.

 

  • Room in guesthouse / hostel. Maybe because free camping was really exhausting, or maybe because we turned a bit lazy at the end of the trip, or maybe because we could finally afford a bed and a shower, India was the country where we probably used hostels the most (at least triple than in the whole first year of travelling!). In touristy areas you will have no problems apart from negotiating prices. In not-so-visited towns, hotels and hostels managers may reject foreign customers because they need to register them and report to the police, which adds paperwork to their daily routine (or sometimes because their place is a prostitution hub and they don’t really want you around. One day Marta will tell you her India-custom-solution to such a situation). But if you are lucky, and the local guesthouse wants to host you, it usually goes like this:

“Good evening, Sir, do you have any rooms available?”

“Of course, Madam. I will show you the room”

“Oh, can you first tell me the prices? How much is the cheapest room?”

“1000 rupees only for double room”

“Mhmm, but I do not need AC. Do you have any cheaper one?”

“No AC? Then I can offer you a room for 700 rupees only”

“I also do not need TV”

 “Ok, Madam, then you can have a room for 500 rupees only”

“And I do not mind if the toilet is outside”

“With toilet outside you can have a room for 300 rupees only”

“What about…?”

And so on, and so forth. One can keep on adding or taking off privileges until reaching the desired or afforded price, because after several tours of local hotels in small towns along the way we realized that in the very same building one can sometimes choose to sleep on velvet sheets with a plasma TV (for the local businessmen) or in run-down beds of windowless cubicles (mostly used by the drivers). It is a matter of time to reach an agreement that is good for both parties, the traveller and the hotel owner.

  • Renting a place

It is not really an option for those who are on the move, but we found it quite convenient to rent a room with kitchen for a bit longer time. We did this in Meghalaya, Sikkim, Goa and Dharamkot (above McLeod Ganj) and the prices per month varied between 2.000 and 10.000 rupees per month (Goa in season would be more expensive, though, at least twice).

 Sleeping on the move

Taking an overnight train is not a bad idea, one can advance a few thousand kilometers in one go. It is tough to find any place to sleep in the general class wagon, but sleeper coaches are comfortable and cheap enough.There are also sleeping buses with little beds. And of course normal (government) buses as well, where one just needs to find a way to crouch on his backpack and have a nap while the bus trots its way.

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This is a really nice room that we got for 200 rupees. Some other times we were not that lucky.
This is a really nice room that we got for 200 rupees. Some other times we were not that lucky.

 

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There were days when we were ready to crush just anywhere…
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While other times we searched peace for our minds.

9. Food and water

Food in India is not really expensive, although that totally depends on where you go to eat. Once we entered a fancy coffee shop in Pune to discover that the very same chai that a guy was serving in tiny glasses at the stall across the street costed 40 times more in the expensive place. The same goes for restaurants. The difference can only be explained by the huge income gap between the poorer and middle-class Indians, not to mention the richer ones which we did not have the fortune to meet on this journey. We will limit ourselves to listing a few options available to the hitchhiker, as Lonely Planet have extensive info on what to eat where and at which price, etc.

 Food

  • Markets. Our favourite places and definitely the best way to provision oneself. All of the ingredients from that Indian cooking book that you could never find back at home, are now all around you. The spices, the grains and rice and all the seasonal fruits and veg are stacked in large quantities and at ridiculous prices. Market time was our most cherished part of the day.
  • Dhabas. small restaurants by the roadside that serve local food and chai. Often equipped with rope beds where one can have a nap. Good place to change trucks if your driver is stopping to rest for a few hours (or indeterminate amount time). One can often have breakfast for 10-30 rupees, lunch for 60-100 and dinner for something in between. Truck drivers stop a couple of times per day to rest in such places, so you have time to order your own meal as well.
  • Corner shops. There are hundreds of them, everywhere, and one can always get biscuits to have with tea from the first street stall you find, and forget any other breakfast.
  • Street stalls. Depending on the region there are different sorts of street food always worth trying. For 20-50 rupees one can have a snack in between rides or while looking for a place to crush. Just try to pick rather clean stalls, make sure the food is pipping hot when served and always wash your own hands before eating.
  • Sweet shops. For 5-20 rupee per sweet and the same for a cup of tea, one can always have a break in any corner.
  • Guesthouses usually offer some sort of catering or have a rooftop restaurant offering Indian curries as well as sandwiches, omelets and salads, and in backpacker’s areas even foreign dishes, like pasta, pizza and falafel! For budget purposes, it is wise to combine dinner in such places with a good view and the use of internet. If budget is not an issue, enjoy the foreign food for a change!
  • Temples and celebrations. At the Sikh temples (Gurdwaras) food is offered to everyone in large dining rooms, and everyone is welcome to join the other pilgrims on the floor for a meal. During Hindu celebrations meals, fruits or sweets are sometimes offered as well. It may be the case with other religions, we just have no experience with them.
  • Random people may often offer you sweets, fruits, snacks or parts of their meal. It is good to have something at hand to share back.
  • Foraging. Possible and enjoyable, but only recommended under local guidance / supervision. If you can’t name a plant never try to taste it.

 Water

  • It is wise to carry a small filter or UV purifier.
  • Guesthouses, hostels and restaurants sometimes have filtered water. Ask if the water is filtered, as local people drink tap water anyway, but it probably won’t be really good for you.
  • Government offices, banks, expensive hotels, etc often have filtered water as well.
  • Bottles of purified water are sold almost everywhere (15-25 rupees). Proper mineral water is pretty hard to find.
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Roadside Dhaba in Maharashtra.
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Kacheri from a stall for breakfast. So incredibly tasty that I still remember it. We ordered three each.
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Shopping at the markets, and then adapting the local recipes for those with a mild-chilly threshold.

 

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Successful banana flower foraging, Manipur

10. Other basic needs

 Shower

Finding a place to shower is not necessarily a problem, but it does depend on the degree of privacy and/or cleanliness that one is searching. There might be showers at the stations (sometimes for a small fee) and guesthouses may let you use their facilities at a small charge. All toilets have a small tap, so cleaning feet and other parts is pretty simple if one does not foresee a nearby shower. But when the roads were really bad and the days hot and sweaty, sometimes we found it worth to get a room just for the sake of shower! In touristic destinations posh hotels have swimming pools that one can access for a fee, but surely one should shower before jumping in – so they usually have pretty good showers with hot water as well.

Many sources of water are considered holy by Hindus and one of the things that calls the attention of any traveller to India is the amount of people that bath in public, in rivers and springs, as part of their daily prayers. You can join in, always observing and being respectful towards the locals. However, if one is not doing it out of belief it is probably advisable to consider the source of water one is about to wash from. We know people who bath in Ganga waters, and other holy rivers, but we are not bold enough to dip more than one toe.

 Toilet

Available pretty much anywhere. Public facilities are not always in the best of shapes, though. Carrying your own toilet paper and soap is the only way to guarantee their presence. Note that not all toilets in India are dark smelly holes (as travel blogs often paint them), in expensive hotels and restaurants and in many homes, toilets are just as good as anywhere else, if you have access, make use of them.

 Internet

Internet can be found in cyber-cafes (50-80 rupee per hour), which are well marked and easy to find around backpackers areas, near the station or in local shopping malls. Some guesthouses and restaurants offer wifi, which makes it worth to spend some extra ruppe in lunch, chai or a banana lassi. In a couple of emergency cases, the receptionists in posh hotels were kind enough to let us use their wifi for a little while (and once they even offered us chai and food!).

Medical facilities

Not that you are going to get sick, but we did need some sort of medical attention in a couple of unfortunate occasions, and it is good to know that pharmacies can be found in almost every small town. Government hospitals offered free examination even to non-nationals (tests and medicines paid, though), but in rural areas they had little equipment or means for diagnostic and in urban areas they were really crowded. Private facilities are available in larger towns.

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Bathing in an open temple.
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The tap.
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A curious water-boiling system

11. Hitchhiking and local culture. Blessings,annoyances, expectations, dangers.

Diversity. The people’s and cultures enclosed within the territory of India are much more diverse than we can start to imagine. Languages, religions, beliefs, cultural practices, aesthetics change to the rhythm of the landscapes. Hitchhiking is one of the best ways to immerse oneself in this melting pot of traditions, but it’s equally challenging to know in advance enough about the local cultures one is going to come across. The diversity of India is probably the country’s greatest asset and maybe one the travellers’ challenges. How many universes can co-inhabit in one single place?

Local wonders. Even in the most remote corner of a state you barely know anything about there will be temples, landscapes, festivals or rituals that will amaze your travelling mind. Even in the most recondite neighbourhoods there will be hidden gems, tiny stores, ruins and histories that you had never heard of. Even in the simplest village you may find a new name of god. India rewards the traveller that takes her serious, it is your choice to follow a pointing finger or a vague indication, and so is your choice to reject when everything becomes too much for your mind.

4 India_Turban and chillum

Hitchhiking in India is not common but people will probably stop anyway. Out of goodwill, or of curiosity, getting the attention of drivers is not usually a problem. The issue is that sometimes people may not understand that you really want to hitchhike or walk or sleep in that shabby tent of yours and especially travelling women (moreover if on their own) will arouse curiosity and a sense of protection from locals that may feel restrictive at times. Joining up with some other travellers when going towards rural areas might be a good idea. Waiting times vary depending on the roads, density of traffic and local attitudes in the region.

There is always room. No matter how packed a vehicle is people may stop for you. Sometimes, it will take you a while to convince them that you, your backpack, your cat and your boyfriend can’t really fit in the trunk of a car with already three children inside. In fact, the reality is that you may fit, just a little more squeezed than usual.

Curiosity is widespread. Just as we travel out of curiosity, so do people want to know all about you. In small towns and villages you may often find yourself surrounded by a growing crowd of open eyes staring at you before one breaks the ice and starts with the intimate questionnaire. They may want to know everything about you, so it’s up to you to share your private life. We sometimes found it convenient to ask one question back for every one we were asked, thus gathering a lot of information on local peculiarities. Also, bear in mind that after years of being photographed by foreign tourists, now local people with smartphones are taking their share, so one should get ready for an extensive photo session in every village you stop to exchange cars or to rest.

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Many people do not have cars and there are plenty of local-transport-business-cars and jeeps and vans and tuk-tuks or three wheelers joining towns where the buses do not run often. This means that as you spread your palm down, anyone may think you are in need of some sort of taxi service, and come in your aid. If you are really stuck, it might be an option to get further out of town, just ask locals for the prices so you can negotiate a fair rate. Otherwise, being clear is the best way to avoid misunderstandings.

Pollution is an issue in India. And it is pretty annoying when it makes camping difficult, not just in crowded urban hubs, but also in natural areas that one can often find spoiled by local, industrial or tourist-induced waste. The only thing we felt we could do is try to avoid contributing to the mess, and just a few times raising awareness when it felt like a conversation and not like some sort of lecture.

Falling sick. From the usual diarrhea to more serious stuff it is common for travellers to fall sick at least once. If you feel unwell or have unusual symptoms, do not wait too long to visit a doctor or pharmacy in the nearest village or town. If it gets serious you will probably need to head to a big town or regional capital for proper assistance.

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When in doubt, follow local’s advice.

 

Theft? It is not the most common of risks, but we shall remember that our gadgets and camping gear may attract attention, and avoid leaving our valuable belongings unattended. Bah! Just common sense!

Scams? There are plenty of tourist-traps, and it is wise to always exercise some caution. The general rule is that of something sounds too good (and too cheap) to be true, it probably is not true. Other than that, if one is having a simple travel there is not much room for scamming. But in any case, some common-sense care is advised.

Negotiation? In general a simple hitchhiker does not get many opportunities to negotiate, but India is one of these places where some sort of negotiation seems to be needed almost everywhere (see guesthouse example above), for anything that you might be offered you may get a better price if you simply have time. Bargaining down things is good for one’s pocket, but it is also true that sometimes one may find herself negotiating for a few cents that back at home would end up lost in the washing machine. Surprisingly we have the feeling that travellers sometimes bargain more with the poorest people of all, while not caring for what is really expensive (i.e. paying 10 rupee less to the ricksaw driver, but then having 5 beers over dinner at sunset). Asking locals for prices and finding a balance is the key to a happy journey.

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How does one negotiate the price of someone riding customers on a bike? We still don’t know how to do that.

 

Border areas, restricted areas. There are certain estates or areas in India where tourism is restricted (i.e. north of Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh), and others where the army may find it uncomfortable to have you wandering around. It is wise to inform oneself about politics, tribal issues and latent conflicts before heading to destinations which are off the beaten track, although in our experience this information may sometimes be inconclusive.

Wildlife and other animals. You are not likely to encounter bears, pumas or tigers, but mostly monkeys, snakes and even dogs that may pose some threat, specially if you are planning to camp. Make sure you know who lives around and ask locals for the best measures to keep them undisturbed.Oh! And do not forget about mosquitoes, they are definitely a traveller’s worse nightmare.

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Snakes are not killed if found around. Instead, a professional snake catcher comes to take her to some better place.

12. Other useful info

Money matters

The national currency is the Indian Rupee (INR). We usually check the current exchange rates here.

Money can be withdrawn at (most) cash machines or exchanged. But we would advise to get hold of a few hundred rupees at least for the first few days if you are reaching India overland through rural areas, as we had some troubles finding working ATM’s. If you are landing in Delhi or Mumbai, forget this piece of advice.

India is generally considered a cheap destination,as we said we did spend a bit more in there than in other places. Prices really vary from village to towns to cities and depending on the state and region one travels through. Surprisingly, we found accommodation to be way cheaper in backpackers’ hotspots than in dusty dark towns along the road, but food comparably more expensive. In any case, this is a short summary of basic hitchhiker’s expenses.

  • Chai in small stall: 5 – 10 INR
  • Water: 15 – 20 INR per L. (consider boiling or a filter, some hostels, as wells as banks and government offices often provide free filtered water :) )
  • Breakfast in a dhaba* (i.e. puri and chana): 10 – 30 INR.
  • Thali in a dhaba – full Indian meal with several types of veg, rice and chapati: 50 – 100 INR. (The cheapest thalis we ate were for 50 rupees, but that was just in Tripura, where food was incredibly cheap).
  • A bed in dormitory (Government run Tourist Lodge): 100 INR.
  • Room in hostel: 200 – 600 INR. More expensive with AC or TV or sometimes if you want a window to the outside world.
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Tourist Lodge Mamit (Mizoram). We were given a single room at dormitory price, when Marta complained to the manager that it was unfair a woman was not allowed to sleep at the same rate as men. Sometimes this worked, sometimes not.

 What to carry when hitchhiking in India

We are not the greatest tech and equipment advisers, and we must advise you not to really trust us on packing lists. We definitely always carry too much, so while we loaded heavy backpacks under the sun, our friend Jolan travelled happily light all around with a tiny bag of probably 20 liters. If we were you we would not listen to what we have say about luggage, but just in case, these are a few things that we found useful (or we wish we had) while hitchhiking specifically in India:

  • A map. We know that there is google and a million apps, but paper maps still felt quite useful to us (we will go into details later on). Try to get hold of one in any big city (the biggest the better) as they are not really popular items in rural areas.
  • Sleeping sheet (rather than sleeping bag) and rollmat. Especially useful during the warm months, to wrap yourself in and sleep on any surface without boiling overnight.
  • A small water filter. It would have been really useful if we had one.
  • Mosquito net. We often found it more useful than carrying a tent.
  • Mosquito repellent. Whatever sort you prefer, natural or chemical… It can be bought in most pharmacies, so there is no need to carry three litres of repelent from your home country (“Odomos” cream worked well for us).
  • Sunscreen. Long hours under the sun  + hitchhiking with the wind most of the time… you can guess the consequences.
  • Flipflops / walking sandals. Useful for almost anything, from shower, to walking around the neighbourhood to not having to tie and un-tie shoelaces the whole time…
  • A light scarf. To protect from sun, dust…
  • Vocabulary sheets or phrasebook. Of any languages that your interlocultors speak (more about this below)
  • Copies of your documents. We can’t count how many times we photocopied our passports and for what random things they were required, so better have some copies ready.
  • Pen and paper.
  • Vaccines? We have most of our vaccines up to date and despite all their bad fame, still believe they are better than the possible illnesses, but it is up to each traveller to decide upon his/her health. We carried malaria pills at the advice of our doctor, but never used them.
  • First aid kit. Along the way we carry a basic first-aid kit (more or less like this one) and re-fill our medicines stock when needed. Pharmacies are surprisingly popular in most places we have been to and we have learnt not too carry too much of anything. Electrolyte solution and povidon-iodine were probably the most useful items in our kit.
  • For women: menstrual cup. Really useful.
  • Soap. And if one is picky like Boris, wet wipes.
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Here is Jolan (and Burma waiting to hunt the motorbike). Behind him, with triple his load, and a hint of envy, we also try to hitch.

 

Secondary stuff that was useful for us:

  • Good walking shoes. We walk loads and believe that proper shoes are really good companions on the road. But hitchhikers who rather wait at the end of town could do without these, as they are heavy, and walking in flip-flops is the norm.
  • Tent. Always useful for a hitchhiker, even if in India – although you will probably be waken up by curious eyes…
  • Cooking stove. It is not essential, food is cheap in India, but sometimes you will really wish for a simple oats breakfast or scrambled eggs with real “zero per cent” chilli. And most of the times markets are even cheaper. Here is a whole post on “our stoves” and their convenience for any type of hitchhiking enterprise.
  • Toilet paper. Unless you learn to use the tap.
  • Ear plugs. To sleep in loud places.
  • An umbrella?

Tripura_walking barefoot with an umbrella

13. Some useful links before hitchhiking in India

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Boris, Marta and Burma roam the world at a speed of a snail. Two humans and one cat that found their way to India overland.

2 Responses

  1. ribi
    | Reply

    You are the real guys who enjoying the soul of life go on guys ……………..

    • Roving Snails
      | Reply

      Thank you, Ribi! We must confess that we are not always the soul of the party, and often get tired or grumpy, but in general enjoying the soul life is what we all aim for, right? May we all find our ways to it! (hitchhiking or otherwise :) )

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