India is many a traveler’s dream, and at the same time it can quickly become a nightmare. It is an incredible country, and there are so many places to visit in India that visitors are often overwhelmed by the choice.
One thing is for sure though: this is not an easy country to travel across and appreciating it fully can be a real challenge.
So, here’s 10 tips for first timers in India:
Be Prepared for Culture Shock
Only go to India after you have visited many other “developing countries.” I actually don’t like to use this expression at all, and to be fair, India can’t even be considered a “developing country.” We are talking about one of the strongest world economies, with a regularly increasing gross domestic product.
What makes India different from the strongest economies of the Western world is the chaos that characterizes it, which can cause a bit (or a lot) of a cultural shock. This is a place where cars pull their rearview mirrors inwards because anyways nobody uses them: they’d rather honk like there’s no tomorrow to warn other drivers and passers-by of their passage. It is a country where there’s no real garbage collection system, especially outside the cities, so garbage is piled up in the streets and at times even burnt.
To be frank, I was so enchanted by the colors, by the atmosphere, by the swing of daily life that I was not put off by any of the chaos around me. But it’s good to have at least an idea of what to expect, and it is good to have some previous experience of chaotic places.
I never saw an Indian woman (and actually, not even a man) walk around without being properly dressed. Occasionally, in really smaller villages which don’t get much tourism a man can be spotted wearing a vest. Other than that, they always wear pants and a shirt and women wear a saree and, in case they are not wearing that, they are wearing long pants or skirts and shirts that cover shoulders, chest and arms. This is the case regardless of the weather: even in the swealthering heat, everyone gracefully covers up.
I know that as Westerners we are used to wearing tank tops and shorts when it is hot outside. But I think that when we are traveling to a country that is not our own, we should try to follow the local customs. Travelers already do get a lot of attention in India and the only way of minimizing this is by covering up.
Travelers often forget their manners and how to be respectful when they are in a country which is not their own. One of the things that annoyed me the most in India was seeing tourists taking pictures of cremation ceremonies in Varanasi. Guide books state this pretty clearly, guides always mention it, and even those who are not taking a guided tour or who have not bothered to do any reading about the culture and traditions of India should easily figure it out. Think of it in these terms: would you ever walk into a funeral back in your home country and start taking picture? If the answer to this is no, make sure that the same applies when traveling around India.
India is the kind of place where independent travelers can only travel slowly. Keep in mind that a distance of a mere 200 km, which would be covered in 2 hours or less in any western country, requires up to 8 hours of travel in India. Guided tours may be effective in terms of maximing the time available, but really – India should be discovered a little bit at a time. In order to get a real feel of the vastity of the country, of its multiple colors, landscapes, cultures and even foods, one should travel there for at least 3 months. That’d mean just scratching the surface. And if time is an issue, then focus on just one State or region.
… and Book Trains (or Flights) in Advance
India is a huge country and the infrastructure is somewhat lacking in certain areas – though it is generally improving. There is a huge network of trains, buses and planes that connect pretty much the entire country. Trains are great value for money, and a great way to travel – especially for longer distances and at night - but they get booked up really fast. It is way better to book trains in advance to avoid being stuck in a city.
Watch Out for Touts and Scams
The minute I’d step out of a bus, I’d be literally surrounded by hoards of people trying to sell me any possible souvenir. Most would take a firm no as an answer, and generally, ignoring them proved to be a good way of not being bothered too much. At times, especially in the most touristic places, I was literally followed around by a few who’d continue pointing their shops, demanding that I’d go visit them at least on the way out. And sure enough, I was actually recognized on the way out and the whole process of following and demanding started again.
I actually took the chance of asking one in a shop why he did that, pointing out that it was not a good marketing technique. The interesting thing is that he agreed with me, but then he pointed to the shop manager who stood close by, and said that he was pushed to do this. Go figure!
Scams are common in India. Typical ones involve transportation, with drivers agreeing on a price and then demanding significantly more. This can be avoided by simply taking out the exact change once you are in the car / tuc tuc / rikshaw and then, upon leaving, just handing it in without further discussion. In other words, make sure never to open your wallet in public as this will show how much money you have.
Learn How to Haggle
It is safe to assume that in India prices are significantly increased for tourists, especially for taxis, tuk tuks and rikshaws, or at markets. I have learned how to haggle in Cuba, so I was hardly bothered in India. In any case, I firmly believe that it is fair to haggle only to a certain extent. I won’t waste time to bring the price down of $0.50!
Mind the Selfies
Indians will never refuse to pose for a picture. I don’t think I was ever told off for taking one, even when it was of children. In fact, I was often stopped at tourist attractions by children or young couples who wanted to pose with me, and I hardly refused. The only times I did actually refuse was when adult men asked me. For some reason, it just didn’t feel right – and I heard horror stories of girls being touched. I’d just rather avoid it.
Look After Your Health
India isn’t exactly the cleanest of places. I was lucky enough never to get sick (aside from a cold and from a mild sorethroat which was due more to pollution than anything else). But I did pay a lot of attention on where and what I ate. My advice is to carry avoid eating uncooked foods (like salads) and possibly even chicken or mutton (they are not exactly kept in the most hygienic conditions); and never drink tap water (buy bottled one or, to avoid using plastic, carry a filter).
I’d also advise to carry hand soap, sanitizer, and toilet paper as lots of places don’t provide it; and to bring a good dose of ferments (I took them throughout the duration of my trip) and imodium (which I fortunately didn’t need).
India blew me away. I was incredibly nervous before I went, but I found it to be an incredibly beautiful country. Add to this the fact that my $ would go a long way, and that I had some incredible encounters with the locals and it’s easy to see why I fell in love with it and I can’t wait to go back.
Have you ever been to India?
What are your top tips for first timers? Leave it as a comment.