India is a country that will turn even the most steadfast of travellers inside out. Stay long enough and there is something in the chaos and contrast that will take you apart and put you back together in unexpected combinations.
Even if you’re an experienced traveller, there a few things you should know.
1. Pre- Plan
Most first-time travellers in India will opt for the well-traversed Golden Triangle and for good reason: it offers a fascinating introduction and a great launching pad from which to branch out. But, it’s only an introduction. Spending a week or two passing through a collection of sites across Delhi, Jaipur and Agra and claiming that you’ve “seen India” will give you the same looks as if you were to go to Paris and then boast you’d ‘done’ Europe.
Don’t be that person. India is far more diverse than a handful of cities could ever reveal to you and the contrast between the northern and southern regions can be just as stark a change and crossing countries in Europe.
Wherever you travel in India, most people will need the help of a travel agency and this is the default practice as the logistics of getting around can be a nightmare to navigate. And this is coming from someone who has never used a travel agent and who actually loves the process of researching, planning, organising and compiling her trips. With India, this was never even a question.
2. Embrace No Plans
It may appear that I’ve just wasted a hundred words telling you to plan your trip in advance only to contradict that by saying that those plans won’t matter. Hear me out though.
It’s a good idea to have solid accommodation/ transport bookings in place but don’t live and die by the plan for day-to-day activities. Quality, not quantity, is key. It’s almost guaranteed that, if there are only 10 things you can fit into your day, then India will force you to make do with 4. Instead, have a good idea of what’s really important to you — seeing every monument in town; spending half a morning combining through back street alleys; shopping; playing cricket with the locals? — and make it the first thing you do for the day.
Come to terms with the fact that Hindi-gestion (or Delhi Belly as it’s usually called) will happen. A rare and lucky few can survive a trip symptom-free, but in on my group, we had a 100% hit rate. After eating nothing but Indian food for 5 days we went down like dominoes. To minimise your chances of being tied to the toilet, bring familiar medication from your own country and take a few of these suggestions to heart:
Stick to bottled water
Like most countries in South-East Asia is advisable that you don’t drink the tap water (no matter how tempting the public drinking fountains looks when it’s 40℃ and you forgot your spare drink bottle). This also holds true for brushing your teeth, ordering drinks with ice and any salad vegetables that were washed prior to serving.
Give street food a miss
It pains me to say this because I always advocate for eating like a local but in India, it’s better to stick to restaurants and food stops approved by your guide/ hotel/ driver. They tend to be more touristy (AKA more expensive) but the food is far from sub-par.
Eat vegetarian where you can
This was a suggestion given to my group, and we broke it Day 1. One of our first culinary stops was a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant, and we ordered the chef special: mutton. Going vegetarian, however, will minimise your chances of getting sick and, if vegetables or lentils aren’t your thing, then use some common sense and always check the meat has been cooked thoroughly.
4. Drink Up
If you’re visiting in the hottest months between March- July, double your current water intake and throw in an extra litre for good measure. It’s all too easy to skip drinks when you see the condition of the public bathrooms but you can learn from my mistake: I drank 4L+ a day and it still wasn’t enough to stave off heatstroke. Remember: if you’re thirsty then you’re already dehydrated.
5. Enjoy Celebrity Status
Being a foreigner in India comes as a double-edged sword. On one side, you get stared at a lot.
Occasionally they’ll try to do the not-so-subtle selfie with you in the background but other times they’ll just ask you outright for a photo.
Say “yes” enough times and crowds will form around you. I’m not kidding.
It’s OK to say “no” when you’ve had enough and if a situation doesn’t feel right then say “no”, ask a friend to stand next to you or make sure someone is watching your bag. No one takes it to heart and you know that in 10 minutes they’ll find another willing foreigner.
On the other side, people are pretty open to posing for photos, so long as you ask nicely!
6. Follow The Dress Code
This is incredibly important for most religious sites, which will require you to cover either your knees, shoulders or head and remove your shoes. However, the same approach works on the streets, too (except for the shoes). I say this mainly to the female readers: please be careful with your outfit choices. If you’re comfortable in your skin and clothes, then you should never be made to feel otherwise but wearing short dresses, mini-shorts or singlets in India is like taking the “I’m a foreigner” sign above your head and setting it on fire. It will attract inappropriate attention.
Instead, follow the lead of the locals, who usually cover up from head to toe even in the middle of summer. Most Indians we spoke to said this was because they wanted to avoid getting sunburnt and, whilst I commend them for their sun safety, it took some time to get used to the notion that sweltering under long pants and shirts wasn’t counterintuitive to surviving the heat.
7. Know What You Want & At What Cost
If you’ve learnt to stand your ground with the photo requests, take those skills and apply them to bargaining. The line between where you can and cannot bargain (shop VS market) is vague in some cities but you can always do what one of my friends did and try it everywhere. At best, you’ll save some rupees and at worst you’ll get turned down.
I’d like to say that the service cultures is personable, but it’s mostly just exhausting. Upon entering a store, prepare for a salesperson to latch onto you and never let go. If you don’t come in armed with an idea about what you want, you’ll be ushered from room to room, constantly hounded for your thoughts on the item’s quality/ price/ one-of-a-kind value etc.
I wouldn’t normally suggest a tactic that would deliberately ostracise people but if you have a second language (for my group it was a mix of Japanese, Spanish or French) use it to discuss things like price, otherwise it will be difficult to get a non-biased opinion.
8. Be (A Little) Skeptical
Some of the people you meet just want to share in a little of your extraordinary life. Others just want a share of your money. You’ll need to learn the difference and, even if you’re aware of the most common scams, it is still easy to get sucked in.
The most common tactic in this ‘scam’ is for rickshaw or taxi drivers to take you to an amazing/ can’t miss/ super-secret/ cheaper/ way cooler store where they get a commission from anything you purchase. It’s a rather simple one to avoid… unless your rickshaw drivers know enough English to describe things like “spice bazaars” and “underground markets.” Then it sounds kind of worth seeing. Trust me, it’s usually just a shop in the basement.
It’s not just rickshaw drivers that do this either. I’ve had guides organise through agencies pull the same trick. On one hand, getting to sit down and do henna with someone’s neighbours or stopping at a favourite hole-in-the-wall masala (chai) shop were fantastic local experiences. Detouring at the high-end jeweller on the way to dinner that night? Not so much.
9. Mosquito Spray and Sunscreen Aren’t Optional
10. Take Breaks
If your holiday is longer than a week, then you consider planning one or two chill days. No plans. No tours. Sleep in and find a rooftop terrace to sit on or a pool to splash about it in.
I’ve been lucky to travel a lot in my life and I’ve never experienced the consuming — physical, mental, emotional — burnout I did in India. Unlike culture shock, which slaps you across the face at the strangest moments, fatigue builds up. The sensory overload (sights, sounds and smells) and constant mental vigilance shave off small slices of your energy until one day you hit that wall, decide to order room service and find yourself eating dry cornflakes and toast in bed.
EXTRA: Don’t Miss It
The final piece of advice I can give is that, despite all the lessons and warnings (or maybe because of them), India is a not a country that you should overlook.
India can be a shock and it makes no excuses for being totally and unapologetically itself. The beauty of it is that my first time travelling throughout India reminded me of what used to be like before we could click on Google images and see the world on our screens. It is a place that can’t be seen on screen. It has to be experienced.
All images © 2014–2020 to MK Photography. For more visit: https://www.flickr.com/gp/isis375/3nqg25