From one corner of the country comes a rich history of different rulers and their kingdoms, palaces and forts; from another comes barren mountains and untouched beauty along some of the most dangerous roads in the world. While the South offers the most beautiful beaches, Ayurvedic massages and yoga retreats, the North boasts of a flamboyant lifestyle and party culture, breath taking hill stations and some of the most delicious food in the country! Do be warned, planning a trip to India comes with its fair share of research. Don’t expect to get off the plane and have a gala time in a country that could swallow you whole. A few quick tips from a local should have you covered:
This may be the most important step in determining your experience in India. There’s way too much to see and do here. From parties in Goa, to religious places and temples, the best mountains and landscape, Ayurveda and natural healing, palaces and forts, historically rich cities, and the stunning hills and local villages of the North East- there’s only so much you’ll be able to cover in one trip. Each part of the country is entirely different- all the way from language to food to local traditions and religious beliefs. Be prepared to miss out on a huge part of the country (unless you plan to be here over a month), and prioritize based on the experience you’re seeking. It’s important to know which part of the country draws you the most and focus on that.
Network before you get to India, make some friends who can help acquaint you with the way things function around here. Few people speak English in most corners of the country, and it’s just as easy to find yourself completely lost in a place where the food, language and culture is all alien to you. You can use the Idargo app to contact locals, but the best place to connect is Instagram or Twitter. Starting conversations with locals once you’re here is quite helpful too, as long as you pick your company. While most people are generally welcoming, you could end up with the wrong company in a jiffy. A golden rule to go by- anyone who can converse with you in good English, is a safe bet!
Hotels in India are considerably cheaper than hotels anywhere else. You won’t need to rely on Airbnb for affordable accommodation, unless you’re looking for a home stay experience. I would recommend budgeting a little extra and picking a place closer to the city center. This way you’ll be closer to the local markets, sightseeing spots and will also have easy access to public transport, market places to top up your phone, get a bite or exchange money with ease. Most 3 star hotels in the cities (specially Delhi and Bangalore) offer good and clean rooms, but it’s best to opt for a 4 star hotel if you’re not too keen on spending too much money. Hotels in Mumbai are expensive, and that’s where you should consider other options like AirBnb and the Guest Houser. Youth hostels have popped up recently in a few cities. Delhi, Goa and Bangalore have plenty options you could explore. Another thing worth noting, is the fact that luxury in India is relatively cheaper, and much grander. Luxury hotels in India bend over backwards to ensure customers have the most exclusive experience at their hotel. If you’re truly looking to pamper yourself, you’re in the right country!
Metros are the most convenient mode of travel within the city, though it’s still restricted to the big metros. Most people use local trains in Mumbai, but I wouldn’t recommend the experience for anyone other than a local. Stick to the metro wherever possible. Maps in English are put up all over the metro stations, easy to understand and comprehend. Autos (three wheeler Tuk-Tuks) are abundantly available in most places, as are cycle rickshaws and local buses. One of the most important things about public transport in India, is that everyone will be out to cheat you. Luckily that isn’t the case with metros, but auto drivers and cabbies in particular will overcharge and how! Uber and Ola Cabs are big in India and you should download the apps soon as you land!
There’s no such thing as “Indian food,” for each region offers a plethora of dishes they call their own, and each varies drastically in taste. The only common link are the spices we use in abundance. There’s no “authentic” Chinese or Italian or French Cuisine. We alter it all with spices to suit the Indian palate. Your stomach could really take a turn for the worse during your first few days in India. Stick to pizzas or McDonalds and take it slow if you want to save yourself a case of the stomach flu. If you’re really keen on an Indian meal, opt for rice with Yellow Dal (lentils)- it’s the mildest, least stomach-churning Indian dish to try. Eating cheap snacks from street vendors is a great idea in Europe, but a definite no in India. Avoid at all costs, street vendors, local food and anything in the open. Don’t purchase water anywhere else but departmental stores. Carry a bottle with you, fill it up at the hotel.
Before you go hiring that car, or renting a bike around Ladakh, there are a few things you should know. The traffic is insane within the city, and the inter-state highways are no better. You’ll find a scarce few following traffic rules, with lane cutting, skipping red lights and over-speeding being common causes of concern on the road. Foreigners become a main source of income for a whole lot of people across different occupations, and most of them will end up duping you along the way. You’ll have to watch your back where money in concerned, and be vigilant around tour guides, auto drivers and porters. Don’t book 3rd class train tickets in an attempt to save money. Stick to 1st and 2nd class seats wherever possible. Trains are tricky business! If you’re opting for adventure sports, check the equipment and machines being used before you pay up.
Returning from Greece last year, I walked out of the airport early morning and was immediately taken aback! I could feel a pollution cover as I stepped out into the city. Be prepared for the pollution and the heat to envelop you as you drive out of the airport. Carry a mask if you have breathing problems, though it only takes a day or so to acclimatize yourself with the new air you’ll be breathing. The heat will be just as strong. Be sure to carry a sunscreen with a minimum 25-30 SP. It might sound like a great idea to carry shorts, but that’s a little debatable for women. Anything lower than knee-length shorts while you’re out on the street, and you stand the risk of being gaped at and hit on. Feel free to dress as you please in malls and pubs, those are generally safe.
Visit a monument, and before you know it, you’ll be engulfed in a crowd full of tour guides yelling different rates at you! That’s your moment to bargain as severely as possible, for they usually charge foreigners ten times the price they would charge a regular person. They will probably end up coaxing you to give out a good amount in gratuities and tips. A quick google search will get you with the tour guide rates, and it’s recommended you bargain heavily to get to a level where they aren’t, well, cheating you too much. That said, it’s best to do some reading about the places you’re visiting but still take a tour guide with you, else you might end up missing out on some of the must-see and must-do items. Most tour guides work with hotels, restaurants and souvenir stores/shops on commission basis. Asking for recommendations is a good idea, but if someone is only to keen to take you there themselves- consider it a bit of a red flag!
For the most part, your experience in India will be worth writing home about. The reality though, is that the majority of people in India live under the poverty line. It’s easier to read about it than to actually see and experience it first-hand; but make sure your experience is more than a few pictures of certain filthy neighbourhoods and beggars on the sidewalk. Nothing upsets us more than seeing tourists post pictures of the poverty and the lesser fortunate, while completely ignoring all the wonderful things we have to offer to the world.
One of the best things about India, is that our culture considers guests as equivalents to God. A term called “Atithi Devo Bhava” which stands for, “Guest is God” is followed throughout our country. In fact, our age-old (and most common) greeting, “Namaste” means welcome. You’ll come across some of the most affectionate and touching people in this country. Breaking the barrier might be tough, but you’ll soon discover- it’s absolutely worth it! That said, be a little vigilant about the people you interact with. Don’t be too gullible, else you’ll find yourself wondering who picked your pocket. There might be some amount of cat calling, staring and attempts to fleece you on and off, but you’ll always find a lot of people willing to have quality conversations with you, about your travels and your lifestyle back home.
For more India planning tips, visit www.stumblingarounddelhi.com