It’s the strangest thing – whenever I tell people I recently visited India they tend to have the same reaction. Instead of the positive responses people usually have towards easy-to-travel destinations like Southeast Asia, their expressions morph into a cloud of worry. In the same kind of tone they might use to inquire into a family trauma or the death of a beloved pet, they say ‘oh, did you have any problems?’ or ‘were you alone?’ with a look of confusement as if I’ve just told them I single-handedly wrestle cobras for fun.
I’m not saying everyone reacts like this, but it’s pretty common especially with older or inexperienced travelers who might not appreciate how easy the backpack lifestyle is.
Security seems to be people’s main concern, in particular women’s safety. It’s fair to say that India is still developing in terms of wealth and in terms of sexism. Yes, you hear of incidents and I’m not saying bad things never happen to tourists but the majority of India’s inequality problems seem to be within their own communities. My own experiences as a traveler in India were, for the most part, very positive. Like many other Asian destinations, your money is your capital and even if by our standards you don’t have a lot, it goes much further in India. What you do spend impacts positively on people’s lifestyles, and we only found people to be kind and friendly.
There are a few things you probably should know before embarking on an India trip, so here are my top tips to ensure you’re prepared. India is well up there as one of my favourite destinations of all time so as long as you understand it’s going to be different from anything you’ve experienced before, you’ll be fine.
1. Plan your route in advance and confirm your train journeys
Trains are your best bet for getting about India but in peak season they’re often booked up weeks in advance. We traveled in monsoon season so didn’t have huge problems but sometimes when booking journeys just days before we ended up on waiting lists. This meant you wouldn’t find out until the morning of your journey whether or not you’d be boarding, which made planning tricky.
So deciding your route before arriving in India can be a very good idea. Website Clear Trip was our go to application for sorting all our travel. It required a tricky registration process: if you didn’t have an Indian phone number you had to email in a scan of your passport to receive a code and activate your account. Once the registration was done though, we never had to rock up at stations hoping to get on a packed train – we could select our date and class of carriage online. I’d recommend first or second class. Even a first class journey tended to cost about £10 and provided you with your own carriage containing bunks and a door that locked from from the inside – great on sleepers if you’re worried about security. Second class was just as comfy but with curtains instead of doors, so it’s your call whether you want the extra peace of mind.
Route wise, Delhi, Agra and Jaipur are the obvious stops and definitely worth a visit. Jaipur is a must-go for monkeys, forts and markets and I’ll discuss Delhi and Agra in particular in a moment. I’d also recommend a few others: Pushkar, a serene market town close to Jaipur where the pink sky and chanting around the lake make for an otherworldly feel. Jaisalmer is known as the Golden City and famed for its overnight camel safaris; Udaiper or the ‘White City’ is set around a majestic lake and known for the 1983 James Bond classic, Octopussy, whilst Jodphur steals the title ‘Blue City’ and boasts forts, zip wires and more. I’ve got loads to say about North India – check out another of my blogs here.
2. Prepare for it to be hectic
Hectic could be used to describe a busy supermarket on a Friday evening. ‘Carnage’ could well be a better description. I challenge you to find somewhere more insane than old Delhi – cramped, curving alley ways with higgledly piggedly shop fronts, tuk tuks swerving in every direction, cows roaming the cobbles, huge knots of sparking electric cables hanging down over the streets, and the relentless heat: so, so sweaty. Whizzing though the streets by tuk tuk we were instructed to keep our limbs inside the vehicle and hold tight to our belongings. Bent over old ladies, gaunt and wide-eyed reached to touch us, their hands outstretched for money; little girls danced for cash while their mafia bosses looked on from afar; and chickens, cows and goats caused the tuk tuk to come screeching halts. Had the chaos been slightly more manageable we might have felt stressed, but with the madness being utterly out of control, we sat back like puppets, letting the colourful calamity wash over us and trying not to pick up any unwanted four-legged passengers who might try and climb aboard. In my eyes, as long as you know you can’t do anything to control India, you can learn to embrace it.
3. Delhi and Agra are worth a visit but don’t stay too long
As discussed in the example above, Delhi’s not exactly a relaxing city, especially in the heat (between March and September it’s pretty damn boiling). One of the best things we did to survive Delhi was take a taxi tour for the day. Costing about £7 each, our driver took us all around the city to the sights we wanted to see and filled us in on the history as went. The best bit was the air conditioned car: a blessing in 40 degree humid heat – we just had to climb out to see the attractions. Delhi has plenty to see: the Red Fort, India Gate, heaving Connaught Place and the Lotus Temple to name a few. Time it right and you can see them all in day or two, leaving you free to move on to more relaxing and scenic parts of India.
This may sound like I’m encouraging you to rush through all India’s cities which I’m not, but I do believe due to the hectic atmosphere in Delhi and the lack of attractions in Agra, they’re a great two places to start with but not worth missing India’s other green (OK, dusty) pastures for.
Agra is famous for the majestic Taj Mahal and this was truly a highlight of my trip. Other than that, the city was small and didn’t boast a whole host of other sights. We booked to spend two nights in Agra and after seeing the Taj on the morning of the first day, we spent the next two days lying on the lawn of our hostel.
But back to the Taj – it’s magical. Immaculate, sweeping lawns run up to it like red carpets; it’s white marble exterior stands serene and peaceful especially when mounted against a dreamy pink sky at dawn. Tiny, silent birds fly by – specks of black don’t disturb the sense of calm the building exudes. It was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as the future tomb for his wife. Slightly morbid to start preparing for her death years in advance but at the same time the ultimate romantic gesture.
4. Watch out for scams
We got scammed once within our month long India trip, but it was within 10 minutes of arrival which didn’t set us the best first impression.
Make sure when waiting for any kind of pick up, you’re vigilant in making sure the driver tells you who he’s waiting for and where he’s going. Asking a taxi driver ‘are you waiting for Rose to go to the Moustache hostel?’ will only give them the opportunity to pretend so. Whilst waiting for our transfer on landing, a driver asked me where I was going, and without thinking, I told him. He said sorry, he didn’t know it and I thought nothing more of the exchange.
A couple of minutes later, a guy jogged over saying he was sorry for being late, were we waiting to go to the Moustache Hostel? We gratefully climbed into his car where he announced due to road blockades, we’d be heading to a sister branch of the same hostel, and put a friendly and professional sounding manager on the phone who confirmed the story.
It didn’t take us long to realise we’d been done. The first guy we’d spoken to had clearly informed his friend where we were headed, enabling him to pretend to be our driver, and the ‘sister hostel’ we were en route to was just a different, and undoubtedly more expensive, business he and the ‘manager’ on the phone worked for.
We later found out this was a common scam from Delhi airport – so watch out for it. We handled the situation by firm insistence that we go to our original destination and and that we didn’t care about the road blockades (which unsurprisingly turned out not to exist).
Mere minutes in India and we were already fighting scams. But were the people trying to threaten or hurt us? Not whatsoever. India is one of the world’s poorest regions so naturally people sometimes try to take tourists for a ride in the aim of making money. Once you understand your relative riches do set you up as a target (many people work for under a dollar a day), you can learn to be vigilant whilst knowing the people aren’t interested in hurting you. A bum bag also wouldn’t go a miss in deterring pick pockets.
5. Go local
A global style hostel in India will only set you back only around £4 a night and will include breakfast, WiFi and plenty of perks – English speaking staff, a safe and secure place to stay and the chance to meet other like-minded backpackers: the same things hostels worldwide provide. So if you’re nervous or by yourself – go for them!
But if you’re feeling ready to see the real India, give a local guesthouse a try: you won’t regret it. In pretty market town, Pushkar (close to Jaipur), we opted to stay in our own private room at the Milkman Guesthouse for £1 a night. Yes, £1. Undoubtedly the cheapest stay I’ve had anywhere in the world. Yes, the toilet was a shared hole in floor; no, there was no warm water; no, there was no air con. But the place was bright and beautiful and the manager embraced us, inviting his family members to adorn us in henna, cooking us dinner himself and telling us his stories.
He was lucky to be alive. After crashing his tuk tuk after drinking 22 beers, he’d spent three months in a coma and was now poorer than ever before after spending his life’s savings on his healthcare. But he was no less welcoming because of it (though I hope less likely to drink and drive again) and the local stay provided us with stories we’d probably never be able to tell had we stayed in a generic backpackers.
6. Learn to love curry, though you’ll end up hating it – at least for a while
‘Oh, I love curry!’ I exclaimed on day one; a fresh faced and naive newbie to India’s culinary scene.
Flash forward thirty days and I was sobbing and gagging into my scarf at the very notion of one more paneer tikka.
‘Everything in moderation’ is a saying that has nothing to do with India. Around Southeast Asia it’s easy enough to seek out different cuisines and dishes (western options are plentiful if you want them) but around most of India, curry is king. There aren’t many alternatives – which is fine for lunch and dinner but curry and spicy rice for breakfast aren’t always what our western palettes crave when we wake up. Just trust me, you’ll be dying for a break of the hot and heavy cuisine by the end, especially when you’re often eating in 40 degree heat.
Still, at least you can experiment between regions. North India is more of what I was expecting – curries, rice, samosas etc. It’s true that a lot of our western curry dishes are adapted to suit our taste buds – we rarely saw kormas, and meat dishes were few and far between. Instead we noticed a focus on veggie dishes including paneer cheese and lots of spinach sauces, known as ‘palak’.
Down in Southern India’s Kerala we quickly became accustomed to the very different style of cooking. ‘Dosa’ refers to thin, crispy pancake-like shells with a mix of dips: usually mango chutney, cottage-style cheese and spicy sauces. We also saw a lot of seafood, often served up on banana leaves. Curries were still present but tended to feature coconutty flavours and generally lighter sauces than the heavy, northern flavours.
To survive and love India you’ll need to develop a taste for spice and a preference for veggie dishes. Due to a lack of power, fridges and general sanitation issues, plus the religious issues (cows are considered holy and not used for food), meat is generally a lot less popular than at home.
7. Prepare for stomach upsets
I don’t need to elaborate here. India opened our minds in ways we never knew possible and the same applied to our bowels.
I’m elaborating too much already. Just bring Imodium, okay?
8. Perfect your pose
When in India, people will want to take photos of you. And they will want to do it a lot. And they will want you to hold their babies. And pose with their grandmas, and then other people will see and decide, what a great idea, they should request the same photo shoot.
Honestly, I felt like Taylor Swift. Did they think I was Taylor? Had they heard of Taylor and thought I’d be a passable substitute? Either way it was something you had to get used to. But far from being creepy, I just found the attention and photo taking were down to curiosity. Especially as my friend and I were blonde we were just that bit more of a spectacle than other travelers.
Accept you’re unusual and don’t shy away from the photos and you’ll be warmly accepted and certain to make new friends. If it gets a bit much – such as everyone in the vicinity wants a snap and you’re starting to feel crowded – simply be polite but firm and say sorry, no more.
(With media training like that, I may as well be Taylor Swift, let’s be honest).
9. Leave your heels at home
If you’re expecting a drinking holiday in India – don’t. I think there are more opportunities for merriment in less conservative Goa but as we didn’t visit, I’m not too sure. India is spectacular for many things: culture, market shopping, food, cities – but not nightlife. In fact with its devout religious landscape, it’s pretty much a dry zone. Locals, I think mainly men, do drink from time to time (see point number five with the drink driving hostel owner) but it’ll be different from what you’re used to. Alcohol is virtually never on menus but on seeing that we were western, we’d often be offered a beer in hushed tones and instructed to keep it out of sight or even served it in a paper bag as a disguise.
To be honest, we didn’t even want it. Well, sometimes it would have been just the thing to steady our nerves but usually by the end of the day we were hot and exhausted from whatever hectic city we’d been navigating, and a night out was the last thing we could muster up the energy for. India the day after too many drinks would have been a hangover on acid.
10. Hold on tight
Anyone whose ever tutted at UK drivers or sighed at M25 tailbacks: you’ve seen nothing yet.
One of my favourite (though at the time most terrifying) tales to tell was when my friend and I were catching a local bus from Pushkar to Jaipur. The driver instructed us to sit, instead of in regular seats, a kind of upstairs cabin which we had to climb a ladder to reach. It had carpeted floors and walls and no seat belts. It was kind of like a furry cupboard so even if we were thrown around, at least it was padded.
As well as being extremely hot, the journey was certainly an interesting ride. Traveling down the motorway at 70mph, a traffic jam emerged on the horizon and our driver decided no, today was not a day he wanted to sit in traffic.
Instead, he performed an emergency stop (thank God for the padded cupboard). Then, he put the bus in reverse and sent us reeling backwards down the motorway, into the path of speeding cars and lorries and to a chorus of screams from the other passengers.
We have a theory that this must have been an extreme circumstance even for the Indian roads as the screams were coming from local passengers who were fairly acclimatised to the driving.
It didn’t end there as our driver then proceeded to drive diagonally across the centre of the road and mount the road heading in the opposite direction. He sped down the hard shoulder for the next hour with other vehicles careering along inches from us.
By the time we reached our end destination we were feeling lucky to be alive. Over the course of the month there was plenty of other such dramatic journeys. Lanes aren’t really a thing – everyone just drives in a massive throng, weaving around each other. We did ask a taxi driver how people know where to stay – he said they just do. For the most part, people seem to rise from the chaos like phoenix: unscathed and coated in a thick layer of dust and dirt, often having acquired a wandering goat.
Maybe it works – though I don’t think it’ll kick off in the UK.
So these are my 10 top tips for surviving India. Anything I’ve said that sounds less than positive – take it the way you would a rant about someone’s best friend or parent when you know they love them really. India’s often testing, usually chaotic, sometimes infuriating but always incredible. Also, it’s the cheapest place I’ve ever been. In a month I spent what I have in five days in New Zealand so it’s safe to say you’ve no excuse not to go.
I do understand its not always for everyone. If you think you can’t handle getting run over by a tuk tuk in 40 degree heat whilst being simultaneously photographed from all angles and licked by a cow, maybe go to Spain instead.
But I reckon if you push your boundaries and increase your tolerance, the rewards will be yours to reap and the memories will last a lifetime.