INDIA: TRAVEL TIPS

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.

You can read about my experience in
Mumbai, Jaipur, and Delhi.

Cow in India Streets

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.


TRAVEL TIPS

  • 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.

INDIA: DELHI & AGRA

As the capital of India, it’s not a surprise that Delhi is one of the most progressive and modernized cities in the country. It has a burgeoning and accessible metro system; daily scheduled tours to visit some of Delhi’s major attractions; and a centralized shopping center in Connaught Place.  But, that’s not to say the city is perfect. I was told by numerous people to return to my hotel before dark to avoid any chance of “trouble” (which I ignored and was completely fine, but still, be on guard).  And needless to say, poverty is still pretty prevalent.

Getting around in Delhi can be solved in two ways: you can sit in hours worth of traffic or take their REALLY awesome metro system. It is clean, easy-to-use, accessible, and incredibly secure.  The last compartment is exclusive to women in an effort to combat their harassment issue. Officers are normally stationed in these compartments to prevent men from coming on, which made each ride ten times more enjoyable.  The only caveat I found with the entire system was that destinations use a more localized name (at least from what I understood), so to get to Connaught Place, you will take the metro to Rajiv Chowk. If you’re unsure of where to go, feel free to ask a fellow passenger, who will happily direct you to your destination.

Now, I’ve mentioned Connaught Place several times. What is Connaught Place you ask? Well, to me, it felt like the central hub of Delhi. I came here pretty much everyday – whether to shop, transfer on the metro, or get to Delhi’s Tourism building to take a tour bus to the Taj Mahal. It is a great shopping center, with storefront shops and street vendors lined up on the sidewalks. It is also a great food destination, with an INCREDIBLE dosa place called Saravanaa Bhavan, that is incessantly filled with diners. Trust me, it’s worth the wait.

So what is there to see in Delhi? PLENTY. If you have a tight schedule, you can be like me and use the government-run tours to see the city.  It is incredibly convenient (and cheap!) and covers most landmarks within the span of a business day. You’ll get a glimpse of the rich Muslim history by visiting the magnificent Qutab Minar, where it was originally used to call for adhan, or the calling of Muslim prayers. The tour will also take you to the Lotus Temple, a center of worship for the Bahai faith, which is open to all people for prayer, regardless of religion. There is normally an organized line to get inside the temple, but once you’re in, you may experience a feeling of hope and comfort. I swear I wanted to switch to Bahai faith after visiting here!

Qutab Minar Lotus Temple 2

Delhi’s Red Fort is also apart of the tour, which is just outside the Old Delhi district. Regardless if you take a Delhi tour or not, this is a must see for all visitors. Built during the era of the Moghul Empire, the fort was used as the residence of the royal family and only a third of it exists today.  Being said, the remainder of the fort is still HUGE, which explains the nice half-mile walk from the parking lot to its main entrance at Lahore Gate.  Once inside, you’ll pass through the primary shopping bazaar for women (well, for women when it was originally built in the 1600s, but now the bazaar is for everyone) before you get to the main grounds. In the grounds, you’ll stand in the site where the Emperor once addressed the public, you’ll pass by the separate bathing rooms (I say rooms, but it seemed like buildings), and see the private Masjid, or mosque, the residing Mogul used. From the size to its history, the Fort is just mesmerizing and definitely a site worth visiting.

Plus, the fort is perfect for you to experience a true Old Delhi bazaar in Chandni Chowk (keep an eye on your purses and bags here!) and see one of the most gorgeous mosques ever, by visiting Jama Masjid, both of which are right across from the Red Fort in the Old Delhi district.

Red Fort Front View

If you can’t find your way to the Taj Mahal from Delhi (which you have no excuse for – okay, fine, maybe you do), you can go to Humayun’s Tomb, which is the burial site of (guess who!) the Moghul, Humayun.  The site served as inspiration for the Taj Mahal and is sometimes called the “Taj of Delhi” (after seeing the Taj Mahal, I feel as if only Delhiites say this). However, that is not to minimize its beauty. The tomb is completely symmetrical, complete with a central water channel with its doors facing the east, so it will always see the sun rise. I learned the direction an entrance faces is central to Muslim architecture, which is meant to symbolize the rise of the empire. You are allowed to go inside and see his tomb and climb to the top, which, if you go late enough, can offer a beautiful view of the sunset. Again, this is a must-see for visitors.

The Moghul Empire is also responsible for the greatness that is the Taj Mahal, the “palace of love.”  For those who are unfamiliar with the history behind the Taj, it was built as a mausoleum for Mumtaz Mahal, the wife of the Mogul Emperor, Shah Jahan.  Having died during her 14th childbirth, Shah Jahan decided to build the Taj Mahal in Agra to honor her.  Made completely of marble, the palace personifies their eternal love, which was built to withstand time and nature. Imagine a love so great that the world’s most beautiful building was created to commemorate it.

Getting to this impeccable piece of architecture is extremely accessible from Delhi. You can hire a driver, take a taxi, book a tour bus, or hop on a train to Agra. If you drive or take a bus, expect a three to four-drive. As a wonder of the world, you should jump at ANY chance to go. Again, I went with Delhi tours which also included visits to Agra Fort and Akbar’s Tomb, which limited our time (we spent around an hour and a half) at the Taj Mahal.

Taj Mahal 1

From the parking lot, it is quite a walk to get to the entrance gate, so our tour guide hired a cart; but, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can take a camel ride there, or just use your feet. Once you get to the entrance, here is where it is finally beneficial to be a tourist in India! Even on a Saturday, the “foreigner” line was pretty much nonexistent, but the “national” line wrapped around and around and around. It seemed endless. However, after you’ve waited in line, you have to wait again to pass through security which is EXTREMELY thorough. If you read my travel tips, I mentioned how strict they are with items allowed in. There is absolutely no food allowed, no large electronic devices (this one tourist knew this and brought her Macbook with her and almost got kicked out because of it), and surprisingly, NO SELFIE STICKS! I think the latter was due to ignorance, but I had to throw mine away in order to avoid being escorted (i.e pushed) out. Be very minimal here. Camera, phone, wallet. That is all.

This is one place where I actually get incredibly emotional thinking about (I actually cried when I saw it). Think of the most gorgeous place you have ever been, and now imagine that thrice-fold. It looked like a painting in the sky that just did not fade over time. Majestic does not even begin to describe its beauty. You can get a perfect shot of the Taj from any angle, but nothing beats the central, completely symmetric, marble-glowing shot. It’s perfect.

As you stroll through the grounds and work your way up the stairs, guards separate you into another “foreigner” and “national” line and if you’re on the former line than you are required to wear cloth feet protectors to preserve the marble, and if you’re a native, it is required you go shoeless.  The perfection has to remain somehow, right?

You are not allowed to take pictures inside and there is a crowd of people moving in a circular line to see the tomb, which is fenced off. Once you have made your round, you are directed to the back of the Taj which overlooks the Yamuna River. Just when you thought it couldn’t be more perfect.

I didn’t mention this before, but aside from the scheduling, the biggest caveat with taking these tour buses is that there are mandatory stops at government-run shops. So, for the Delhi tour, we stopped at a gift-shop, which had everything from picture frames to real gold jewelry. In Agra, they will take you to an authentic marble store where you can purchase furniture and souvenirs made of the same marble used to build the Taj.  This will occur on the ride back when you are extremely exhausted and just longing for your bed.

I did talk a lot about the tours available in Delhi and to Agra (from Delhi), but there is much more to Delhi than its attractions. Delhi is a great place to do yoga and amidst all the chaos, you can really achieve peace. (I recommend Sivananda Yoga Center which is open to visitors and have 1 1/2 hour classes). Also, shopping is excellent and you can really grab anything you can imagine here (I really bought wayyy too much)! I recommend Dilli Haat, which has a 20 Rps. entrance fee, but has around 100 vendors within their vicinity and really awesome food. But just go to Delhi and enjoy its culture. Enjoy the history. Enjoy the people. The city is huge and there are SO many pockets to discover in a lifetime.

Outside Humayun's Tomb

I’m including a price list of sights I visited in Delhi and Agra. Below are prices for Foreign prices only.

Site Foreign Price
Red Fort 250 Rs.
Humayun’s Tomb 250 Rs.
Lotus Temple 0 Rs.
Qutab Minar 250 Rs.
Taj Mahal 750 Rs.
Agra Fort 250 Rs.