Prior to our booking, the verdict for Jyoti Singh Pandey’s assailants were convicted, sparking nation-wide protests for female security; I read threads and threads on message boards about women being groped in public; and my cousin told me a personal story where her friend was disrespected by multiple men in Goa. So naturally, I was skeptical. But, despite all this, and with assurance from family of friends, my best friend and I booked our ten day, three city trip to India. And guess what?
My experience proved them all incorrect.
For any Westerner, it will be a culture shock. The smell. The driving. The density of well…everything. Did I mention the driving? But, as you’ll find out, it is wondrous.
There is so much to learn from Indian culture – which is impressively vast, diverse, and welcoming. I have never gone on a vacation and learned so much from complete strangers. I watched joy and excitement of a homeless girl pour out over the luxury of rubbing antibacterial soap in her arms (I really wish I captured this moment of honesty); I learned about the impact the Moghul Empire had on shaping present-day India; and I finally caught on to the Indian food craze, which was a HUGE step for me. India taught me that absolutely nothing should be taken for granted and, most importantly, everything should be experienced with an open mind and soul.
Now that I know how it feels to land in a place that feels like worlds away, below are a few travel tips that I wish I had known before going.
- Dress conservatively. If you’re a woman, make sure your shoulders and knees are covered at all times. I was really hot at Elephanta Caves, so I wrapped my light cardigan around my shoulders, so they were slightly exposed. I still received unwanted stares, nonetheless. Palazzo pants and maxi skirts will be great to avoid feeling under-dressed without being overbearing.
- Be comfortable with bargaining. Bargaining is a lifestyle. My first tip from an Indian traveler was: “Don’t even go down half, go down to a third of their suggestion and then they’ll meet you halfway.” I was too weak to try this, so don’t be like me and pay the asking price!
- Prepare yourself for extreme pollution. The pollution is intense. India ranks 174th (out of 178) in Air Quality by the Environmental Performance Index. Avoid exposure by covering your mouth with a scarf or small washrag when outside for a prolonged period.
- Plan your travel accordingly. The best time to travel (to beat the heat and their monsoon season) is in October and November. I went in the middle of November and had 75 F degree weather, with cooler nights. Bring a couple sweaters if you go around this time.
- Learn the art of taxis. There are two important questions to ask your taxi driver: 1) Are you metered of fixed? Most airports have a fixed rate, but city drivers will do either. If you can, take metered – they are always cheaper. And of course, rickshaws, also known as tuk-tuks, are the cheapest. And 2) Do you know how to get to (insert destination here)? This will save countless headaches as the driver pulls over and asks every pedestrian directions. Which happened in 95% of my taxi rides. However, your taxi driver can be your best friend during the short (or long depending on traffic) ride. Make conversation. Most people have a decent grasp of English. Plus, they’ll pull over to grab you a cup of chai and what’s wrong with that?
In Jaipur, taxis work on a commission as well as their driving rate. Most taxi drivers paid hotels to guarantee business and if you pay them for the day, (they will try to convince you to let them be their driver for the day – it’s not expensive and it is really convenient), they will take you to a textile store where they receive a certain percentage of your purchases. You are under no obligation to purchase anything, of course, but it is interesting to see.
- Keep sacred places sacred. Do not bring any food to the Taj Mahal or any temple, for that matter. I can’t stress this enough. Unless you plan on participating in a ritual where food is given to the respective deity, food should not be brought with you. Also, the security at the Taj is really tight and, surprisingly (or not), better at most of their domestic airports. They’ll throw away your food. AND your selfie stick!
- Stay clean! Anti-bacterial wipes will save you in situations where an outhouse is your only available bathroom. It’s also really useful to wipe your feet when places require you to take off your shoes and socks. For the temples that allow you to wear socks, bring an extra pair of socks to throw on. Your feet can pick up myriads of bacteria, so throw an extra pair in your bag to slip on!
- If you want to budget: Between traveling, sightseeing, eating, and shopping, I spent around $40 USD/day. I did shop a lot and used taxis for transportation, except in Delhi where the subway system is super simple. Food and lodging in India is incredibly cheap, so you can easily get by comfortably in India with less.
- Consult your doctor before you go. This isn’t necessary, but it will prepare you for any viruses that you may be at risk to. Hepatitis A and Typhoid is prevalent in India, but you should be safe as long as you eat cooked food and avoid their water. My doctor prescribed me an antibiotic for typhoid, if I were to get exposed while I was there, and also gave me medication for Malaria. Mosquitoes shouldn’t be an issue if you go in the cooler months, but should be a concern if you travel during Indian summers.