Part 01 – Planning your trip.
- Think about why you really want to visit India and what interests you.
It is very easy to follow a cliched program in India, following the masses just because everybody does it. If it is a first time, then most people want to see the Taj Mahal and therefore will follow the basic Golden Triangle plan. The reality is that Delhi, Agra and Jaipur are big, dirty overcrowded cities and yes, house impressive monuments but, particularly the way most agents sell India, do not showcase the best that India has to offer. Beyond the Taj, there are countless possibilities; is it culture, architecture, trekking, rafting wildlife, culinary, adventure, spa and wellness, deserts, mountains, or rural tourism that interests you? Think about why you want to visit and then plan accordingly.
- Slow it down
India is busy and overwhelming; most people rush around trying to tick as many places as possible off their lists. Most trips are planned like an endurance trip, torturously early mornings and long days sightseeing amidst the crowds, dinner, bed and move on. It all becomes an exhaustive blur. Even if you do want to do the main circuit, there are many other highlights which can be included, if you take the time to do them; food tours, cycling tours, photo tours, exploring textiles, enjoying a hot air balloon safari. Staying an extra night or 3, discovering one place well and gaining an understanding of the culture as well has having time to meet the local people can be far more rewarding than dashing around following a tick list.
It is also important to take some time out to process what you are witnessing, there isn’t a minute that doesn’t offer something noteworthy. Extend your stays in a destination, Jaipur can easily be 3 or 4 nights, there is enough to do in and around Cochin, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Bhopal for example to make them 3 night stays. A holiday is about relaxing too and remember it is a fact is that you will never be able to cover all you want to in India in one trip, but plan well and gain the best out of one trip, and guaranteed, you will want to come back for more.
- Get off beat
Most people perceive that if you go off beat, you will encounter poverty and get sick. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The extremes of poverty are in the cities, which is hardly surprising in a country with a population of almost 1.3 billion. The cities are fun, there is never a dull moment but it’s also nice to escape and experience somewhere more off beat or rural. These areas for me are where the true heart of India lies. For years, I have been persuading people to get off beat and without fail, this experience has always come back as the highlight of the trip. These rural stays, which can also be in forts or palaces also provide for some relaxation and time to absorb all you have seen before throwing yourself back into the mayhem.
- Choose your travel agent carefully.
If you are planning on using an agent, it is easy to pick one of the larger companies as one feels more secure but my recommendation is to go with a smaller, specialist company. These are people who operate from a passion point and truly get to know each destination they sell and want you to come back loving the destination as much as they do. Of course, booking another trip with them wouldn’t go amiss, but they have will have a much better understanding of you, what you want and will match this to the right hotels and experiences in the destination. They may not always be the cheapest, as, being experience based, they tend not to go down the shops and commissions route but this also means that you shouldn’t get dragged into every tourist shop as you go along.
Part 2 – After you land.
- Don’t apply logic!
India is illogical, baffling, bewildering and to the untrained eye, a mass of uncontrolled confusion. I have always maintained, in my twenty years of sending people, that if you try to understand it, you will drive yourselves insane. It is no exaggeration. On a daily basis, you will encounter and witness situations which just do not seem logical and in some cases can appear quite incredulous. However, it does work. It has its own ways and systems and, if you learn to accept what is illogical, it will provide some wonderful spectacles to witness and anecdotes to share.
- Remember that Indian time is relative
India operates on what is commonly referred to as IST or Indian Stretchable Time. Mostly now in the tourism industry this has been rectified in terms of driver and guides who will be on time. However, you may well find yourself waiting half an hour in India when your friend has assured you they will be five minutes. Traffic and other interruptions can also mean that getting around can take a lot longer than expected. Build in plenty of room for unexpected waits and make sure to check opening hours – shops do not open until 1000 and many government offices can close in the afternoon for lunch. Also most museums are closed on a Monday.
- Steps to Staying healthy
Delhi Belly isn’t exactly a myth but it is rarely the result of food poisoning as most people think. The food contains many spices and oils which we aren’t used to and an overdose on arrival can lead to an upset stomach. However, that being said, there are some basic rules to follow:
Drink plenty of water and keep hydrated but NEVER drink tap water, and steer clear of any food that may have been washed in it. As a precaution, avoid ice, ice cream, and salads and fruit you haven’t just peeled yourself. Let your stomach acclimatise for a few days before sampling back to back Indian meals.
When you’re on the road, you may well find you have to use some less than sanitary toilet stops, but these don’t have to be health hazards. Toilet paper is rarely provided, so it helps to carry some along with you. Anti-bacterial wipes and anti-bacterial gel are also handy to keep with you.
Carry a pashmina or a shawl, it sounds crazy but in the hot season, trains and planes can have the a/c turned up ridiculously high. Having a way to stay warm can be necessary.
- Use common sense to stay safe
There are plenty of straightforward ways to avoid subtle dangers in India, but mostly it’s down to common sense. Carrying huge quantities of cash isn’t a good idea anywhere, or flashing it around, in crowded Indian cities pickpocketing is a problem. Re public transport: I personally have never had a problem but if you do take a tuk tuk or taxi, send the registration number to a friend or contact and use GPS to make sure they are going in the right direction. Wondering alone at night is not advisable and women wearing skimpy clothing is not advisable. Yes I may get slammed for this last comment but facts are facts, there is a large, uneducated population who carry misconceptions and this can’t be changed overnight. India, although changing rapidly, is a conservative culture which brings me to my next point.
- Dress conservatively
Be aware that India has a relatively modest culture. Covering arms and legs is a simple step toward respecting this. Indians are forgiving of those who aren’t familiar with their culture, but you can quickly make a good impression by, for instance, removing your shoes before entering someone’s home. This is particularly important when entering a sacred space, like a temple. Also, if you see shoes outside a shop, it’s a sign to remove your own. When visiting temples, mosques etc you will need to keep knees and shoulders covered and carry a scarf to cover your head where appropriate.
- Don’t be too precious about your personal space
Personal space isn’t something that tends to be recognised in India. Lets’ face it, with such a huge population, it is hardly surprising but Indian’s live in joint families and are used to crowds, queuing isn’t something they relate to either! People will stare, particularly if you are blond or a red head and they will ask seemingly intrusive personal questions almost as soon as they have asked your name. However, I have never felt threatened, it is just their curiosity and culture. Remember they will be as curious about you as you are about them.
- Watch those feet and hands
Feet are considered to be unclean in India, so if you touch something with your feet it’s appropriate to swiftly apologize. Similarly, eating or passing objects with your left hand is considered unpleasant for reasons best left to the imagination. If unsure of local customs, keep an eye out for what others do and imitate.
- Be prepared to haggle
Haggling is a way of life in India and is as ingrained in them as eating spicy food. It is easy to get frustrated with this but remember, Indian’s haggle with Indians it is not just with you. The trick is to stay cool, be pleasant but firm, don’t allow yourself to be irritated and enjoy it as another Indian Experience. Oh, and it is a fact that if you are foreign you will always end up paying slightly more!
- Ask permission when taking photographs
India is a photographer’s dream, taking wonderful pictures in India is as hard as shooting fish in a barrel. However, do take a moment to consider how you would feel if someone just stuck a camera in your face when you are eating, trying to sleep, or chatting to your friends etc. Most Indians are very amenable but particularly the women can be shy and do not want to be photographed. Therefore it is polite to ask first, sign language will do, and respect their response. Oh, and kids LOVE having their photos taken, you will soon be surrounded with giddy excitement and shouts of ‘one more.’
- A note about trains.
Train travel in India is very affordable and can be a great way to see the country and meet the people, however, unless you are traveling on a luxury train, it is not the ‘romantic experience’ people believe them to be. Also remember that most people in India travel by train to cover long distances. One very important thing to note is that train tickets can rarely be bought on the day and need to be booked in advance.
A fun note about trains:
- Have a fabulous time
India is an extraordinary country which cannot be visited in one lifetime, I know, 20 years on the road and I have barely covered one third of what I would like to see. The best way to think about India is to relax into her rhythms, be astounded and occasionally baffled at the things you will see and be charmed by the people, they always make the trip for me and have a wonderful time.