I’m often asked what the most shocking places I’ve visited are. All are surprising on some level but if there is one place that took me 48 hours to really adjust to, I’d have to say it was India. (The second being Egypt but not for all the same reasons.) Something of a jarring experience, India quickly became one of my favorite countries, one I’ve returned to three times after my first trip.
Many seasoned travelers I’ve spoken with also found India as initially challenging as it was ultimately rewarding. Being aware of these aspects that tend to disorient many first-time India travelers can help you adjust before arrival.
Air Pollution, Garbage, And Street Poop
Behind the United States and China, India is the world’s third largest producer of greenhouse gases. Air pollution is estimated to caused 620,000 premature deaths in India annually – yes, per year – where 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are located. Garbage service is grossly inconsistent [PDF]; as a result many people end up burning their trash, another contributor to the omnipresent smog.
With 78 million homeless people (plus free roaming animals) without an effective public sanitation system, it’s not shocking that feces is a common sight in many parts of India. The air may smell of urine and excrement but one’s nose adjusts. Your feet should too – watch your step and don’t forget – your crap doesn’t exactly smell like flowers.
It’s Raining Men, Women, And Kids
When you first exit any airport in India, it’s like walking into a swirling human hurricane, with sounds, bodies, and shoulders occasionally knocking into you. In a country with an average of 385 inhabitants per square kilometer [PDF] and a population of 1.21 billion, personal space isn’t a practical feature for the culture. What appears as chaotic movement of human beings is actually a deceptively orderly process. Standing in frustration in the middle of it, like many tourists do initially, is pretty much being a blood clot in an already clogged artery. Unless you want every other human blood cell slamming into you, take note of the locals and maneuver around obstacles gracefully. Cows, auto-rickshaws, everyone and their mother, brother, plus four cousins will be in your way – simply walk around them and don’t get upset at the occasional shoulder fender bender.
Letting a bump or strolling in crowds upset you will only transport you to temporary insanity as you miss half of the peculiar sights along the way.
Try Not To Think About How Your Plate Was Handled
Indian food is as varied as its geography but doesn’t usually include hygiene as an ingredient. Plates are generally cleaned with tap water, a supply that contains a number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It’s unlikely anyone, from the cook to the waiter, will have washed their hands with soap most of the day.
You’ll probably be fine during most of your trip to India but diarrhea is likely to accompany you for part of it. Generally speaking, eat at only places frequented by locals, don’t consume any dish you’re uncertain of, and head to the recommended places to dine (here are some of my own). But don’t think too much about what happened to your food before it got to your table. Doing so may only make you sick.
Stick With It
If all I’ve done is terrified you from visiting India, you’re stuck in the first 48 hours. Since our brains store first impressions in context, with negative attitudes being more profound [PDF], allowing them to overwhelm us only conceals the other side of the things I’ve mentioned. How resourceful those under such constraints can be or countless people who enjoy sharing their colorful stories with visitors. And palak paneer – a dish no amount of bacteria can keep me away from for long.
Space may be the final frontier, but you don’t have to wait for warp drive to explore it. Like myself, I’m sure many of you are waiting for the chance to extend your travels beyond our planet and my live chat guest today is working to make that happen.
In 2009 Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales founded Zero2Infinity in Barcelona, Spain; its maiden vehicle is bloon, a stratospheric balloon that will allow people to fly to Near-Space. Thanks to his astronomer father, he has been in close contact with space missions ever since he was a child. He graduated in Aeronautical Engineering from Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, and since then has been involved in a host of cutting-edge projects such as building and flying microgravity payloads for the European Space Agency, rocket science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Ariane 5 Evolution Space launcher, to name a few.
The Q&A is now closed. Thanks everyone for participating!
open today, July 11th from 1-2pm US EST (5pm-6pm GMT; 12am-1am Bangkok). Scroll down or click here to submit your questions below!
I first met Jose in 2011 when he gave a talk about bloon at a conference on space tourism and interviewed him about near-future space tourism later that year. Today, he’ll be here for one hour to answer your questions about how you can become a space tourist, the costs, challenges, and what’s next for tourism far beyond the stars, all in the comments section below.
Getting to mainland Yemen and Socotra Island, the Tim Burton inspired natural wonderland 380 kilometers of its southern coast, requires a few additional bureaucratic hops that aren’t too cumbersome if you know where to step. Both are surprisingly accessible and having spent 10 days in the country, I got to know a number of contacts that will make planning your trip to Yemen, Socotra, or both, a simple process.
Why Go To Yemen?
I’ll be covering this question in detail over the coming days but in short – Yemen has some of the most spectacular landscapes I’ve ever seen and Socotra Island is quite possibly the most exotic, yet untouched, place (that’s reasonably visitable) on the planet. When it comes to both mainland Yemen and Socotra, if you like natural beauty, trekking, or traveling in a country that has an unexplored feeling to it, these might be the next places to put on your travel list.
- Although Socotra Island is a part of Yemen, getting there requires a slightly different process, so I’ll show you how to get to both separately.
How To Get To Mainland Yemen
Yemen offers visa-free travel to very few countries (Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey) so chances are you’ll need to apply for a visa. Most Yemeni embassies don’t handle visa requests directly – plus the requirements change often – making it essential you call or email them directly for updated instructions. Be sure to plan at least 4-6 weeks in advance and not have your passport during that time. (For most nationals, Yemen requires you to mail in your passport as part of the visa process.)
Some of the standard Yemeni visa requirements are:
- A passport valid for 6-12 months beyond stay
- Completed application forms
- Passport photos (confirm the exact dimensions)
- Letter of invitation (a local tour operator can provide this, I recommend Eternal Yemen)
- Doctor’s note confirming you’re free of communicable diseases
- Some money (price varies)
Visas are typically only issued for travel to the capital Sana’a or the port city of Aden. You can, of course, save yourself a lot of the trouble by simply contacting a local tour operator like Eternal Yemen to take care of the entire visa process for you. They’ll also be able to get you the necessary travel permits to move around the country if you plan on exploring outside of Sana’a or Aden. (Permits must be shown at security checkpoints in between every governorate.) I have also heard that visa applications for United States citizens are especially likely to be rejected or have last minute problems, another reason to use a local tour operator who can circumvent any obstacles directly with the government.
- Flights – A number of airlines service Sana’a and Aden, the two most common entry points into Yemen. Turkish Airlines, Emirates, and Yemenia all connect many major Middle East and European cities to Sana’a, with stopovers in Aden. Budget airlines also fly to mainland Yemen routinely from Sharjah (outside of Dubai) in the United Arab Emirates.
- Overland – Land crossing from Saudi Arabia is not permitted for non-Yemeni nationals however buses run from Salalah, Oman to several cities in Yemen. Rides are over 10 hours and I’m told it’s not a comfortable journey.
- Where To Stay – In the map below you can locate all of the places I’ve stayed at and recommend in Yemen. And, as most stays will include at least one night in Sana’a, I suggest you look no further than the Dawood Hotel.
View Yemen in a larger map
For more information on each hotel, including contact information, check out my Yemen travel information page.
Is Travel To Mainland Yemen Safe And Do I Need Any Special Preparations?
The first part of that question has a layered answer that I’ll elaborate upon in the coming weeks and the second part is a short no. However, the U.S. Centers For Disease Control (CDC) recommends malaria vaccinations if you’ll be traveling to areas in Yemen below 2,000 meters (~6,500 feet). Sana’a is high enough that it doesn’t meet that criteria and I never got (and never have actually) taken anti-malaria medication; but you may decide to proceed more cautiously.
- Is Yemen Safe For Travelers? – I traveled to Yemen with my friend and fellow blogger Wandering Earl, who writes in detail about the security situation there.
Generally speaking, travel to the most dangerous and unstable parts of Yemen are strictly restricted. Elsewhere, the use of a local guide and driver both enhance your safety while opening up many of the smaller villages you’d likely miss if on your own. Once again, Eternal Yemen can organize custom trips giving you a local’s glimpse into Yemeni culture and heritage.
How To Visit Socotra Island
Air travel to Socotra from several Yemeni cities can be arranged on Felix Airways or Yemenia, which fly to Socotra 1-3 times a week for about $300, round-trip. If they don’t cancel the flights that is, which happens regularly, without warning, and at the last minute.
- Direct Flights To Socotra Outside Of Yemen – There aren’t many options except for Felix Airways flights to and from Sharjah, UAE. A good multi-city flight would be to book airfare to Dubai, connect to Sharjah using local ground transportation, and catch your Socotra plane from there.
Many travelers to Socotra simply skip mainland Yemen, save for a layover in Sana’a on the way to the island. Keep in mind any stops or layovers exiting in Sana’a generally require you have a travel permit. They can be obtained from the Tourist Police office in the Old City of Sana’a or a tour operator can get for you if you’re not planning on staying in the city.
Renting A Car On Socotra – It’s possible, but expensive at about $50 per day (not to mention fuel). Aside from the asphalt road that circles the outer-edge of the island, the interior is some serious off-roading on “road.” Imagine you driving in the video to the right.
- Where To Stay – There are a few luxury hotels with rooms for $100 per night but I’d recommend saving your money and sleeping right along the beach at one of two camps: Abdulluh Edib Camp or Delisha Camp.
There are over 300 endemic plant species plus nearly 200 species of insect and a similar number of bird species to be found on Socotra. Navigating them, even the most famous bottle and dragon blood trees isn’t easy initially and it helps to get in touch with a local guide for part of your trip. If you’re looking for one, I can recommend Saaber Aamer (email: [email protected] tel: 00967-771-969-576).
- Why Go To Socotra? Because it’s sort of like evolution got bored with the rest of the planet and decided to drop acid while creating the four-island archipelago. This video says it all.
Socotra is a hard place not to be mesmerized by, so following up on my I Love Istanbul Tour, I’m planning on giving a Socotra Tour at the end of this year. If you’re at all interested in visiting Socotra for New Year’s, send me an email and Wandering Earl and I will add you to our list of participants!
Socotra And Yemen Mainland, Not So Hard To Reach Both
Outside of the visa process and obtaining the necessary travel permits, arranging a trip to Socotra and Yemen much like booking any other trip. Depending on where you plan on going and whether or not you’ll be using a local tour operator like Eternal Yemen, the amount of added legwork varies. But once you arrive and meet the faces of Yemen, wander through plateaus of countless dragon blood trees, or sit on the edge of Burra Mountain, you’re likely to find the added effort well worth the time.
Airplanes are the magic machines that allow us to travel around the world and pilots the magicians who fly them. Despite taking over 40 flights a year, I know little details about how those experts keep 400,000 kilos of aluminum (and all of us passengers) in the sky and landed safely at out destinations. A fear of control can foster many of our flying anxieties, so today you can ask my live chat guest what it’s really like to fly, and the lifestyle of an international airline pilot.
Alejandro flew for a US based airline for 4 years before being offered to fly the Boeing 747 internationally for Eva Airways. Now based in Taiwan, he jets around the world delivering passengers and cargo to various destinations. Flying is his passion, but being a pilot isn’t as glamorous as it seems.
The chat is open today, April 16th from 3:00pm-4:00pm US EST (7pm-8pm GMT; 12pm-1pm Los Angeles). Scroll down or click here to join the chat below!
In addition to jet-setting, Alejandro and his wife Zeina recently launched the Habby Travels, a trip organization service. You may be curious whether or not planes come close to crashing without our knowledge (am I the only one who wonders that?), how “close” pilots and stewardesses really are, or want to get into piloting yourself. Alejandro is all yours to discuss the life and job of a pilot for the next hour in the comments.