Lately, I have come across many people who intend to travel around India and their backpack is full of questions – what shall I do so that I don’t spend the whole time in the toilet? Do I need to be vaccinated? Is the country safe? It is funny but tourists who visit India usually split into two groups: those who get disgusted and never set foot in the country ever again, and those who are absolutely thrilled about their fairy tale-like sojourn in the country where everything is possible (and I mean it).
So what exactly divides people into these two groups? It’s mainly the state of their mind. I’ve been living in India for quite some time now and I can see it in myself – if I’m flexible, if I accept things with a smile on my face and I don’t stubbornly insist on everything to be my way, India opens up, everything works, and I feel happy. If, however, I yell for the fifth time at the internet provider because my Wi-Fi isn’t working again, guess what happens? The next time I call them, they won’t pick up, no one comes by to repair the damage and I’ll need to wait for a day at least so that something, finally, happens.
My number one advice is – try to suppress your ego as well as western way of thinking, and adapt to the environment without constant complaining that nothing works properly, everything is dirty and stinky. If you start looking at things from their positive side at every cost, India will show you its most amazing side and you will have the time of your life.
WELCOME TO “INCREDIBLE INDIA”!
I’ve put together the most important points that will make your stay smoother and you’ll be prepared to cope with local conditions better. The whole article has turned out to be longer than I had anticipated. That’s why I’ve decided to turn it into a sequel to prevent your head from spinning from all the information. 😉
The first question everyone asks is “What should I do in order not to shit myself?” Excuse the expression but that’s just the way it is. I’d say that you should use your common sense although that’s something really not easy in India. I mean, it’s freaking hot, crowded, and noisy. Nothing works properly, you have zero personal space, and on top of that, there will always be someone who begs for your money or wants to take a picture with you. And the list goes on and on… Try to remain sane in these conditions!
So if you see a dirty teeny tiny corner (or stall) with greasy pots and a cook who touches everything (yes, everything) with his bare hands, avoid this place like a plague. Same goes for raw fruit and vegetables that you can’t peel (or at least wash them with fresh water and spit out the skin). Our Western body is simply not used to the Indian type of bacteria; even though the lowest caste can afford to drink water from any bucket, we are likely to kick the bucket while attempting to do the same.
Touristy restaurants should be safe to eat but to err is human (and especially in India) so getting sick after a nice meal in a restaurant recommended on Trip Advisor is nothing out of the ordinary. The cook might just forget that he shouldn’t rinse your noodles with (contaminated) tap water and the catastrophe is here… However, that is more likely to be an exception. So look around yourself – can you see many foreigners at the tables? If the answer is yes, you should be just fine.
If you’re not a vegetarian, be careful when it comes to ordering meat. Restaurants with many guests might be a guarantee of fresh meat but I wouldn’t rely on it. Moreover, as you might know, cow is considered sacred in India and killing this animal is prohibited. Therefore, if you see “beef”on your menu, on 99% you can expect to be served buffalo instead. The remaining 1% is obtained illegally and I don’t think that anyone will be willing to share it with you…
Everything depends on how strong your immune system is. In fact, I would recommend that you boost it by homeopathy or other medicine that the pharmacist recommends a week or two before you get on the plane. Also, if you’re stomach isn’t really friendly with oily and spicy food, avoid eating in dhabas (low-budget restaurants with cheap food). South Indian cuisine is traditionally spicier than the cuisine from North India but in good restaurants, you should be able to ask the staff to make your food milder. In dhabas, however, the food is already cooked so you can hardly ask the personnel to alter it for you.
You won’t be able to wrap your head around names of meals because they don’t resemble anything you are familiar with (unless you’re a big fan of Indian cuisine). The names are simple, though, and will always tell you what the food consists of: for example, palak paneer – one of the most popular dishes – is nothing else than a curry made from spinach (palak) with cubes of Indian cheese (paneer). Knowing some simple words will help you decipher most of the menus.
I wrote down a list of most common food vocabulary that you will definitely come across:
In North India, namely in Dharamshala (Himachal Pradesh) and Ladakh, you can also try traditional Tibetan cuisine. Their specialties include momo (steamed or fried buns with a veg or non-veg filling), thukpa (soup with homemade noodles), sha phalep (fried calzone with meat filling), or tsampa (roasted barley flour with butter and sugar). I like tsampa because it reminds me of streusel topping that I like to eat raw. It’s even better from roasted barley flour because that one is safe to eat uncooked. In restaurants, the consistency of tsampa will resemble porridge.
Do NOT drink water anywhere in India. There are certain regions where you can use the water to rinse your mouth, such as in North India. On the other hand, in Bihar, the second poorest state in India, I would not dare use any other than bottled water to do the same thing; even boiled water does not kill all the harmful bacteria or amoeba.
To be on the safe side, refuse ice in your drinks, too, unless you’re in a restaurant that guarantees you water-filtered ice. There’s no such thing as being overcautious when it comes to drinking water in India. If you don’t want to ruin the rest of your stay, stay smart.
Be even more attentive during or right after the monsoon season (end of June-September). This is the time when water contamination reaches its peak. Get yourself a BPA free plastic bottle for less than $2 and buy filtered water from restaurants. Not only will you save a lot of money, you will also be more environmental-friendly which –let’s face it – India desperately needs.
Drugs and herbal medicine
I would also like to point out that paracetamol, eye drops, and even certain pills that you need prescription for in the West are easily available in omnipresent drug stores for a fraction of the usual cost! Leave expensive medicine at home, save some room in your luggage and bring home more souvenirs.
Furthermore, drugs bought in the country where you are on your vacation often work better than those bought in your home country. I’ve had countless experiences that proved this theory to by right ranging from mosquito repellents to gastric colic medication.
If you’re not a big fan of medicine based on chemicals, India won’t let you down, either: you can find ayurvedic or homeopathic medicine in every pharmacy. If you’re interested in getting diagnosed according to the principles of Tibetan medicine, visit one of the Men-tsee-khang centers. Tibetan doctors will tell you what exactly is wrong with your body based on checking your pulse with nothing else but their fingers! See for yourself how accurate they can be! You can also get your astrology prediction done in the Astrology department. Find out more on www.men-tsee-khang.org
When I traveled to India for the first time, I was going to spend only five weeks in Ladakh which has very little in common with India. For that reason, I decided not to get any recommended vaccinations. My plans changed, however, and I moved to Dharamshala where a few months later I got really sick for a week. I had a horrible diarrhea and the only energy that I had left in my body I used for commuting between my bed and the toilet. Two months later when I went for a check-up in Europe I found out that I’d contracted hepatitis A! You can imagine how surprised I was given that besides that week in India I didn’t have any symptoms. The doctors were shaking their heads in puzzlement and so was I.
What I’m trying to say is that even though I tried to be extremely careful, it didn’t work. Therefore, I do recommend getting vaccinations although I’m not a big fan of them.
Oh, and in case you got bitten (or even only scratched) by a stray dog, don’t wait and head straight to the nearest hospital for a rabies shot. If you go to a governmental hospital, the vaccine won’t cost you anything. There are many people who die from rabies every year so bear that in mind.
I am sure that there will be people who will tell you that you don’t need any vaccination because they had zero problems during their visit. There is always an exception to the rule which doesn’t mean that you will be it, too. Bear it in mind. 😉
After your arrival in Delhi
If you don’t have any ATM fees on withdrawing money, get some cash from the ATM you will find right next to the baggage carousels. Airport exchange offices don’t charge any commission but they offer scandalous rates. Exchange your money in the city instead – it’ll save you major bucks.
If you’re a budget-traveler without any pre-booked room, ignore all those intrusive taxi drivers, exit the arrivals hall and search for the government taxi box office which will be right in front of you. Get a pre-paid taxi to Majnu-katilla, a Tibetan colony in the NE part of Delhi. It’ll cost you 550 rupees (2017) and will take 30 minutes of your time (provided that there’s no traffic jam). I like this part of the city because you have a unique opportunity to meet Tibetan culture, try authentic Tibetan food, and buy some souvenirs… This part also treasures various hostels, restaurants, and cafés you’d be sorry to otherwise miss. Moreover, the Tibetans will be fair and won’t charge you extra just because you’re clearly a foreigner which – unfortunately – will happen in the city…
One of my many experiences with money-hungry Indians would be with travel agents. Once we wanted to book a taxi to Taj Mahal for 3 people for the following day. We were told that it’s such a short notice; after some serious negotiation we got the trip for 12,000 rupees. A year later, when I tried to book a taxi for the same trip from Majnu-katilla, the price was 9,000 for 6 people.
It is a wise move and a real money-saver to exchange money in Delhi if you plan on continuing your journey in Ladakh or if your next destination is off the beaten track.
Transportation in India
Subway (metro) in Delhi is surprisingly clean and very comfortable (unless you hit the peak hours). Pay for the number of stations that it’ll take you to get where you want, don’t sit in ladies’ seats, and enjoy the ride. I haven’t been on a subway in other big cities so can’t really tell you more about those, sorry.
Funny thing – the Indians automatically think that a foreigner equals a wealthy man. What doesn’t really occur to them is that wealthy foreigners wouldn’t really wear shorts, sleeveless undershirt, and a huge backpack.
Therefore, prices go up for us. Some Indians are good sports, some just try to see what price you are willing to nod to. Prices also differ from place to place so expect to pay more in Goa than in a small town in Tamil Nadu. In general, try to pretend that you know what the prices are. When a rickshaw driver tells you his price, just say that it’s too much. If he refuses to decrease the fare, start walking away. You will see that other drivers will chase after you and happily give you a cheaper ride.
Nevertheless, I would like to put in a good word for the Indians here: if you’re not on a too tight budget, don’t negotiate for every rupee. Life in India is hard enough and silly fifty rupees (80 cents) could actually help some individuals a lot…
Train arrival and departure times are as unreliable as India itself. Several-hour delays are therefore more than usual. You can buy your tickets online after having signed up for free on www.irctc.co.in. In order to complete your registration, you will need an Indian SIM card. If you wish to buy a ticket through a travel agent, it’ll cost you 15-20% more. On some frequent routes the tickets are gone quickly so you’d better book them 2 months or so in advance.
There are different classes that you can opt for: 1A, 2A, 3A, and Sleeper. “A” stands for AC and 2 and 3 for number of berths suspended above each other in each compartment. SL or sleeper doesn’t have AC but you can open the windows. Travelers on the waiting list sit around usually on lower berths while waiting for a berth to vacate. Unless you want to have a company or be squeezed in between two berths (on a middle one), book an upper berth.
To be honest with you, I prefer to travel in sleeper. There is less privacy than in 2A but the luxury of opening a window when everyone around you farts, burps and snores during 30 hours of your journey is priceless. I also recommend getting a really good pair of earplugs (I have silicone ones that have been saving my life here in India for years now). India IS a noisy country and you will soon find out for yourself.
It’s really handy to have this website bookmarked in your phone: www.enquiry.indianrail.gov.in which will show you which station your train is currently at and when it is expected to arrive. It’ll save you hours of waiting at the station that you can use instead on exploring. There are no announcements on trains so be sure to ask people around AND use the app as well. Some Indians tend to tell you anything so that they don’t have to say that they don’t know. This kind of a lie is a cultural thing, I’d say. You can truly rely on the “Spot your train” application which is something miraculous in an unreliable country which India undoubtedly is.
Railway staff will walk through the train and ask for meal orders – you are not going to notice them unless you speak Hindi. There will be many other opportunities to buy food on board, though. Sometimes even at big stations where the train stops for longer. You can also order food online (www.ecatering.irctc.co.in) but I haven’t tried this service yet so I can’t vouch for its reliability.
Buses are not a bad alternative to the trains but they break down more often, too. Some are more comfortable than others so try to book a Volvo which is of course more expensive but believe me, it’s worth it. There are buses that even offer Wi-Fi on board but I have never been able to connect. My theory is that they simply pretend to have a free Internet connection on board to get more passengers and then they just say that “It’s not working today.” Happened to me too many times…
If you’re traveling overnight, the bus will most probably stop for dinner around 10 pm or sometimes 11 pm. Many routes are planned out for the bus to arrive very early in the morning so you can enjoy your breakfast in your destination. Buses ordinarily depart with a delay since there are always some seats empty. Those in charge will start making phone calls and pace back and forth until they find more passengers to fill in the empty seats. This always gets on my nerves…
That’s not all, folks! Don’t miss part 2 of India essentials because there’s plenty more to learn about India! You’ll get to know more about Indian culture and mentality, dress code, and other very useful topics that should help you have a wonderful time on your vacation.
Do you have any questions? Don’t hesitate to ask! I’ll try to answer to the best of my knowledge!