Before you leave:
1. Pick your destination well. There are some standard destinations that every tourist will aim for: Delhi (because it’s the capital and because the Taj Mahal is almost next door), Goa (beaches), Rajasthan (because its tourism heaven), States up north/Himalayas (extreme sports). If this is the only trip you ever expect to make, any one of those destinations will give you a good snapshot of one small corner of India. But if you have the will and ability to choose, try something different. Head south. Very few people seem to think of southern states as “touristy”. Two alternatives (there are many, but these are my favorites):
- My husband is from Kerala. It is appropriately called ‘God’s own country’. It is beyond beautiful and you can take in all the ethnic wonders in a true state of relaxation. If I ever retire in India, this is where it would be.
- If you do head to Goa, take one of the popular side trips south to Karnataka and you will be elbow deep in historical beauty going back thousands of years.
Wherever you go, make sure you see more than one place. Each state is a country in itself, with its own language, food, culture, mannerisms, clothes, jewelry, history, etc. Going to one city in India and saying you have had a full Indian experience is like saying “I have been to Paris and seen all of Europe”.
2. Do you know an Indian family with relatives in India? Great! See if they can host you for a home cooked dinner one night. The food that you eat in Indian homes is something you will never find in any restaurant, not even in India. And you could spend a valuable two hours gaining insider knowledge of the city/town/state.
3. Ask yourself why you picked India as your next vacation destination. Do not prepare for an ordeal. Do not start your trip by telling yourself India is crowded and dirty and full of poor people. It is, but that doesn’t mean your vacation isn’t going to be fantastic.
4. Plan at least 6 months ahead. Getting a tourist visa to India is about as easy as finding a spot on the next mission to Mars. The intricate steps and details are worthy of a whole other future post.
When you are there:
A. When you walk into someone’s home or a temple take off your shoes at the door.
B. Modern India is easy to navigate in terms of mannerisms, greetings etc. Almost everyone will shake hands, say “hi’ etc. But if you meet someone who is not comfortable shaking hands (especially true of older women), the standard “Namaste” with your hands folded is good enough.
C. Travel by train. It’s the best way to see the nooks and crannies of rural India.
D. If you are visiting a touristy place, you will invariably see a little child outside vending something (toys, artifacts). As long as it is not food, buy something and don’t bargain. It may be a fake, it may be useless but you are helping out a kid who is trying to make an honest living. As a corollary, see 6E) below.
E. Talk about politics. For one thing people love to get worked up about politics and politicians, and the discussion is guaranteed to get lively and philosophical. You also get a lot of insight into how the civic system works (or doesn’t work) for the people. You will hear about the good and the bad, the victories and frustrations.
F. Ask about cricket (play a game or two on the streets if you can). This is even better than talking about politics! And be prepared to see alarming displays of fanaticism if there is a prospective match with the neighbors (Pakistan).
G. Shop. An outfit you buy for $15 in India will cost you about $85 in an Indian store in Edison, NJ. If you are buying from local artisans, do not bargain. In larger malls, by all means haggle your little heart out!
A. Don’t worry about learning the language, almost everyone speak English, or at least understands it.
B. Avoid raw foods if you can. Stick to hot, well-cooked dishes.
C. Don’t drink tap water; don’t trust the bottled water in smaller restaurants.
D. Don’t worry too much about people staring at you. People are not being rude, they are curious about someone who looks different.
E. When your taxi stops at a major intersection you will be overwhelmed with people begging for money. The sight is gut wrenching – crying children, disabled men, mothers holding babies, etc – don’t give them any money, You will not solve poverty in India by enabling them for another day. But you can make a difference by donating to the many nonprofit organizations that work to ease the conditions of such people.
F. Don’t treat poverty like it is a tourist attraction: Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you must take a tour of the slums to understand the “real” India. There is no real or fake India. It is all out there on full display without apology. “Slum tourism” is exploitative and pointless. Unless you work for a non-profit that has tasked you with taking pictures, there is no earthly need for you to take photographs of beggars and slum dwellers.
G. Don’t watch Bollywood movies just for the experience, it’s a huge waste of 3 precious hours. The Cineplexes look exactly like they do here, and all the popular Hindi movies are released to US screens at the exact same time as in India.
7. Safety tips (true for men and women):
- Don’t take public transportation unless you are with a trusted local. If you are a woman, don’t take public transportation, period.
- Don’t travel anywhere late into the night.
- Don’t hitch hike or accept rides from anyone who is not a licensed taxi driver.
- Being curious and adventurous is great, but within reason. You cannot pitch a tent on the side of a random highway and expect that nothing bad will happen.
- How should you dress? Use your common sense. You do not have to cover yourself from head to toe, but as in any foreign country, err on the side of caution.
- One extra note of caution for women (and it hurts to say this, but it’s the unfortunate truth): you will often encounter men who will stare, say something inappropriate – you can almost feel the visual undressing. Even from a distance this will be degrading and humiliating and you will want to react. Your safest option is to walk away. Forget everything you have learnt about “standing up for yourself”, walk away and find safe harbor. That said; remember that not all men in India are rapists and misogynistic.
8. A little bit of perspective will go a long way in making this the best vacation of your life. As you step through the crowd, noise, dust and fight for street space with cattle, it is sometimes hard to forget that you are walking in the land that (among other things)