Even the seasoned traveller may be unsure if a trip to India is a safe, rewarding and meaningful investment of money and time. Here are some practical advises that may help you make an informed decision, protect yourself and have fun.
If you don’t have medical issues and you drink bottled water, apply mosquito-repellent and follow basic rules of hygiene during your trip, it is likely that you will not fall sick. However, you should consult well in advance a doctor and read the recommendations on vaccinations and the health and safety guidelines for travellers to India provided online by governments and governmental agencies. Purchasing a travel insurance is also a very smart thing to do and some companies require it in order to allow you to join the tour. Don’t forget to take any necessary medication with you.
In a nutshell, be informed, don’t overdo it and don’t feel compelled to treat this trip like a visit to a warzone.
It is paramount that you try Indian food. Restaurant staff tends to be understanding when it comes to foreigners’ bellies. You can negotiate how spicy the dish will be. North Indian food is great, but south Indian has its own very distinct flavour.
When it comes to snacks, forget luxuries such as 7/11. There are no convenience store chains from what I saw. You can find snacks in little corner shops and supermarkets. You can also get fresh fruits from the market. Be particularly careful when you buy street food. Don’t buy food that has already been prepared, especially during monsoon season. If you really want to try street food, ask your guide for advice or buy food prepared in front of you. The first time you have curry for breakfast, you’ll feel like somebody is slapping you in the face. But eventually you will get used to the constant numbness of your oral cavity. Masala tea is a must.
Going around town
As previously mentioned, Indian cities are not particularly attractive. From what I saw, north India didn’t have a city which the tourist would be able to enjoy and explore on foot. There were no well-paved pedestrianized little streets with cute shops or coffee shops, no well-lit city centres where locals and tourists alike were enjoying an afternoon walk. At least not like those you can find in Barcelona, Tokyo or even Beijing. I figured that well-to-do Indians go to shopping malls on their free time, but as shopping malls are identical all over the world, I didn’t really bother to visit one (except from the hunted mall across our hotel in Agra).
It is easy for a tourist to end up being ushered from monument to monument, without really seeing the city. Therefore, if you decide not to go with a free-spirited tour operator, you should do a lot of research beforehand and come up with specific places that you want to see. There are many nice coffee shops, bookstores and galleries that are worth a visit. Spontaneity will not pay in India. You may end up booking a tuk tuk for a day and letting the driver take you wherever he wants. In the best of cases, they will just take you to India Gate and you will miss out on a lot of other cool places. In the worst of cases, you can get really, really badly ripped off. If you don’t like planning, opt for a city tour.
As stated before, walking is not really an option. To move around in Indian cities, you can ride the subway, get a taxi or a tuk tuk. If your hotel is reputable, they will book a taxi for you and negotiate with the tuk tuk driver on your behalf. If you need to negotiate with a tuk tuk driver yourself, be firm, bargain and don’t allow them to take you to random places. In the Delhi metro, the front section is reserved to female passengers, though women can ride any part of the train they like. Furthermore, make sure you have comfortable, baggy and relatively modest clothes with you. If you are wearing a short skirt and you are with a group, you will probably not get harassed, but it may feel uncomfortable nevertheless.
If you want to feel safer, you can let your hotel know where you are going, what time you are planning to come back and who the driver is. Don’t forget that once you have chosen your trajectory on google maps, the use of the GPS is free. Use it if you need to keep track of your trip. Have with you a map, physical or offline, in case you get lost. Carry with you the card of your hotel and don’t put all your money and cards in your wallet. Save all the important numbers on your mobile, including your embassy’s number and tour operator emergency number. People speak English reasonably well. If worst come to worst, find a place that feels safe, like a hotel, and ask for help. Please also avoid giving money to child beggars.
It is really worth the effort to conduct a little research on your accommodation options. All the hotels I stayed in were very nice, clean and proper. The staff really made an effort to help us and offer a good experience. Many hotels have reasonably priced spas and swimming pools and good internet connection (yeah!). Heritage hotels are definitely worth a stay.
Landmarks and entertainment
When it comes to important landmarks, the same rules apply as everywhere else. Visit them first thing in the morning. Wake up at 4.30 if needed. This is especially important in the case of the Taj Mahal which is even more impressive live and it takes time to fully appreciate its gorgeous details and majestic scale. And like everywhere else in the world, if you don’t hold an Indian passport, be ready to pay a lot more than the locals to visit the main attractions. Varanasi was a great experience, but we were kindly asked beforehand not to take photos of the burning bodies, a request that I appreciated.
There are plenty of options when ti comes to entertaining activities, as long as you do your research or ask your guide. In rural areas you can find the classic ones, such as rafting, canoeing, trekking and driving around in jeeps. A Bollywood film is a must, especially if it is shown in the magnificent Raj Mandir cinema, a tourist attraction in its own right. Language is not really an issue. Just look up the summary of the film on imdb beforehand or ask the staff to fill you in.
Spectacles involving animals
It is advisable to stay away from elephant rides or any sort of spectacle involving wild animals, as you may inadvertently end up supporting practices that go against animal welfare. Even though monkeys are abundant in cities, they are still wild animals. It is ILLEGAL to force them to perform tricks. Do not encourage this activity by tipping the owners and call a local NGO if possible.
There are many websites with more information on the topic. The ABTA animal welfare guidelines is a great place to start. Most reputable travel agencies no longer include elephant rides in their India itineraries. The rule of thumb is, the less reputable the operator, the more likely is for the animal to suffer abuse. If you decide to ride an animal, wild or domesticated, don’t forget that you can always walk away if you feel that it doesn’t look healthy or well taken care of.
An alternative is to visit one of the many beautiful reserves and shelters. There, you will have the opportunity to see many animals and plants, enjoy the spectacular nature and support the good work of people who strive to transform the life of those animals and their own communities.
Shopping can be either fun or exhausting. If you like haggling, India is your paradise. If you want tags on the products, you will give up after the first few days and wait to go to a shopping mall or the duty-free shops to do some shopping. If you decide to bargain, start very, very low and don’t be afraid to walk away from a deal. There will most likely be another street vendor nearby selling the same mass-produced souvenir in a more reasonable price. The country is cheap, but you may need to do some searching to find truly interesting souvenirs. Places like Dilli Haat are definitely a good place to start.
Female Solo Travellers
Having said in a previous post that I didn’t encounter instances of sexual harassment by men, I personally would not recommend solo traveling for women. I felt that if I was travelling alone, I would have to be extra careful when going about my day to avoid ending up in some dodgy place or uncomfortable situation. All the extra preparation and stress can suck the fun out of the experience. In other words, India is not Japan. Therefore, going with a group may be the better option. It is true that the experience will then depend on how well the traveller will bond with the rest of the group. However, the destination, the travel company and the itinerary do define the kind of people that will sign up for the tour in the first place. If you find the package interesting, it is likely that you will have things in common with your fellow travellers. My group consisted mainly of highly intelligent, young women. It was fun! The three men in our group were also nice.
One thing I highly recommend is to go prepared. If you know next to nothing about India, spend some time to master the basics about the country. Don’t just read the guidebooks or trip advisor. Knowing what you want to see is nice, but knowing why it is important to see it is even better. Read a couple of novels, try to piece its history together, watch a few movies, read the local newspapers. This way, not only you will be prepared for what you will encounter on the ground and you will have realistic expectations, but you will also be able, once there, to make the most out of your trip and of the things you see and experience.
Books I read before going to India:
A Suitable Boy
The White Tiger
The God of Small Things
My favourite Indian films:
You can also check out the University of Melbourne/Coursera MOOC on Contemporary India.