I had wanted to put together a well thought out, rigorously professional list of things to bring to India. I have been trying to do just that for a couple of days now. But each time I do the list just seems completely artificial and pointless. We are all different, and have different preferences. We all know what we have to have with us to make our photographs, and to be comfortable while working and resting. Clothes, toiletries, something fun to read, a couple of notebooks and a pen (preferably a fountain pen – more on that later!), a good pair of slippers. What else does a photographer need? Josef Koudelka famously said that 2 shirts and 2 pants are more than necessary and then its just a matter of going. Perhaps a bit ascetic, but he sets the bar for the minimum required.
I in fact do usually travel with just 2 pants and perhaps 3 shirts! I don’t know why, but I have a serious aversion to baggage. Even for a 6 week India trip I will not have enough to require checking my bags at the airport counter. Perhaps it is some need to feel that I can just pick up and leave a place any time I want, to roam without concern about my belongings and to be able to walk without exhaustion to any destination once I have disembarked from a bus or train. It is also the reason why I rarely carry heavy camera equipment, or even a laptop! A couple of camera bodies, a couple of lens, perhaps 40 rolls of film and i am off!
August is a beautiful month in Ajmer – it rains. This is no ordinary rain. This is India’s summer rain, considered a gift of the heavens. It cleanses the city, energizes the people, compels children to laugh all day and play carelessly in pools of waters. I remember this rain from my childhood. Karachi would seath in June and July, and August would bring relief in the form of downpours that millions anxiously waited for. The city would be bought to a standstill – water would collect everywhere, roads would back up, electricity would fail sometimes for hours, offices would be closed, schools too (yes!), and every one would be left to do nothing but….play! It was the greatest time of the year and the only one I remember when my mother would become a girl and rush out into the rains to run and laugh!
Fear not; its not monsoon that destroys our ability to be out and make pictures.
August is rain in Ajmer. Just remember that. It is a unique time for the city which is otherwise hot, dry and near impossible to work in because the heat just cuts through your skin and squeezes your lungs!
Ajmer is also where you can find anything you will need as far as daily needs are concerned; clothes – the light kurta is a near perfect piece of clothing for hot weather and very cheap. it is light and simple and found everywhere. It is also appropriate in that it will automatically erase any concerns about appropriate attire and so on. If you are passing through Delhi you can find fabulous ones at Fab India and other such places. I pick a few up each time I arrive and then just wear them out during my travels. Basically what I am saying is that you need not drag a lot of heavy stuff for fear of not being able to find things in India. Yes, of course, that silk full length, off-shoulder/Armani tuxedo may need to be packed if you feel you must!
Some people bring a lot of exercise equipment. This is tricky as jogging on the streets of India is not recommended – the pollution alone can kill you, if the traffic will not! I do yoga in my room – its easier, requires no extra equipment and ensures that I do not have to fear an unknown neighborhood. I am sure that there are gyms somewhere in the vicinity, but I seriously doubt if you will have time for, or that we will allow you time for, body toning and aerobics. Just so you know. Photographers are also very proud of their beer bellies and lack of stamina. Marks of honor!
I would also suggest that you keep your camera equipment to the bare essential. If you must know I only work with 2 lens – both fixed focal length. A 50mm and a 35mm. That is it. I find that people carrying a lot of different lenses are attempting to hedge against ‘unexpected’ circumstances and hoping that some lens combination will be available to capture every situation. The fact of the matter is that you can never get all the pictures you want. You will never be able to capture it all in all its infinite variety and variations. The best strategy is to select the equipment that best allows you to get most of your images. And since we will be working on close documentary work, you are best off bringing your simplest lenses, and putting aside long zooms and so on. But of course I am simply suggesting this because different people have different ‘equipment comfort’ levels. Certainly less is more in my book Besides, lugging around large camera bags to your subjects and sites is a bit of a pain. Not only does it draw a lot of unnecessary attention, but it can be an impediment to your ability to get others to relax around you.
Electricity can be tricky and particularly in the rainy season it can be fickle. Do bring a small torch to find your way to and from the toilet. I have a silly little one in my mobile phone and it works just fine. We are not out in the tundra here – just something that can help you navigate without breaking any bones.
Wall plugs are mostly European compatible, so all your Americans will need adaptors please. Best that you come with these, though I am sure they can also be found in Delhi or Ajmer. India uses a 2-pin plug though I have seen some very strange variations on this as well. My European plugs work fine though I know that the Indian plug is just a slight variation on this model. The India variety has 3 round pins – the lower 2 actually fit the European plug. There are plenty of light weight adaptors available – Belkin has a nice and easy one that I have found to always work in India though I am not sure the one I have is still being produced. Note, most all digital cameras and laptops have dual-voltage capability so you needn’t worry about this. Power surges can be an issue, but I recommend that we by a surge protection power strip once we are in India for those of you worried about such matters.
Extra batteries for your camera are always a good idea. You may be working away from the hotel and it would be better that you have a backup.
Bring a toothbrush please. Thank you.
Bring light, cool, cotton clothing. I know people love those fancy nylon hiking pants with more zips than a space suit. Ok, I guess you can bring these if you want. Light shoes. Scarves may not be too fashionable. The girls should bring something to cover their heads – yes, a scarf because it is decent and respectable to do so when entering mosques, shrines, and temples. And perhaps even when meeting elders – it is a sign of humility and courtesy to cover your head. Not a must, just a thought.
Lip balm. Mosquito repellent. Imodium (yes, come on, be prepared!). Deodarant. All are necessary. All can be bought in India.
No fanny packs please! Ok, that is just a pet peeve that has no real logical reason. Lets just say its a question of taste!
For a more serious, well thought through, point by point list talk to Sam. I saw that he has one hell of a packing list on his blog from Uganda 🙂 I am sure he will remind me of the 20 most important things I completely forgot!
I will update this one as other thoughts come up. But the general rule is; keep it simple and don’t over do the whole thing. If you forget something you can always find it in Ajmer.
Oh, yes, fountain pens. Do you realize that ball point pens place incredible pressure on your wrists and arms? It is one of the reasons why people do not write with them for any length of time. A fountain pen however flies over paper, and is a joy to write with. You can buy these very cool, cheap, disposable (if you must!) fountain pens in India. I love writing with them and find that I actually write a lot just to feel the pleasure of the pen moving over paper. I hope to get a quality one this time around. So chuck that Bic and pick up a fountain pen, take your notes in your fashionably cool Moleskins (yes, we do need some style) and feel the joy of writing again!
(Coming up in the next post; why the LP will reconquer audio playback again, crushing this fad called the CD!)