Namaste and good luck!
- Sometimes, you just gotta give up. See, many small scenarios are going to irritate, anger and frustrate you – and your instinct will be to raise your voice or question the bizarre information or instructions you are getting. If it is a big deal – well, you should stand up for yourself. But remember that getting in an argument may seem satisfying now, but you'll usually feel shitty about it later. So give up. Pay a bit more. If someone in charge is asking you to do something stupid, just do it. It's easier, it'll save you a headache and your pulse rate will remain normal, which, on a 40 degree day, is worth it.
- Do not let people in busy places (train stations etc) see that you are intimidated, afraid, confused or overwhelmed. Even if you're pissed, don't raise your voice or have a hissy - just use your best acting skills and remain mellow. Remember - what may seem like a chaotic clusterfuck designed to piss you off should not be taken personally! The (at times) wonderful madness is the only thing that most folks here have ever known, and our "calm, clean and orderly" standards are for them merely fantasies projected on TV and in western movies.
Also remember that many people, especially those in rural areas (or maybe visiting big cities from rural areas) may have never seen any Western media, and are therefore confused as to why you are making angry faces at what to them is a normal situation. They will pity you for being so uptight, and not connect your irritation to anything that they are doing to cause said irritation. This one (and number 1) will make more sense when you get there and are faced with confounding situations on a daily basis.
- Most of the typical scams found in movies and detailed in Lonely Planet do not occur anymore. Therefore, your shoes will not get stolen at monuments, no one is refilling old water bottles with tap water and re-selling them, the shoeshine kids don't squirt crap on your shoes only to offer to clean them. Despite this – ALWAYS decide on a price for everything in advance – tuktuks (called auto rickshaws here), a shoeshine, fruit, whatever. Never hammer it out later – people will try to rip you off an unimaginable amount.
- Learn as much Hindi as you can. Wobble your head from side to side to indicate yes and maybe. Learn about cricket and Bollywood. Call people “didi” (older sister) and “bhai” (older brother) and say “Accha!” to indicate good or okay. Play in the street with children. Be calm and amiable (see number 2). It's more fun this way, people will like you, and your experience will be much better..
- Trains are pretty easy - a monkey could navigate them (and many probably have, judging by the huge populations living at the stations.) Book online – there are 2 websites, but you can only book on one irctc.com. You need to know the station names and select the specific class you want - you will get you an error if there is no through train – ie: if you have to connect and take a different train at a midpoint, and also if there is no “AC chair car”. There might still be a train – play around with classes. Try indiamike.com for detailed info – the message board is a life-saver.
At a glance Night Trains:
- 1st Class Sleeper– does not exist on most trains, but it is more like the Darjeeling Limited with private cabins and a server
- 2nd class Sleeper: Both 2 and 3 berth (means 3 tiers or 2 tiers when converted at night– most backpackers take 3AC – not to be confused with 3rd class) - solid options, but 3AC can be REALLY loud. Both have clean sheets and blankets, but there are cockroaches and mice on some routes (Varanasi – Agra is a badddd one). 2AC is better for a more restful sleep – you get a curtain and it is much less crowded.
- Sleeper – same as 3AC, but with no AC. The lack of AC means that the windows are open, and that can mean that it is either wayyy too hot in the Summer, or wayyy too cold in the Winter. This class will be pretty crowded – see below. No blankets or sheets provided.
At a Glance Day Trains:
- 3rd Class – see entry below, hippie.
- AC Chair Car- As close to a Western train as you're gonna get. For day trips it is even cheaper than sitting in 2AC/3AC – and it includes a meal (ack) and a bottle of water. Really good.
- Chair Car – Same as above, no AC and no meal.
- 2AC and 3AC - On trains that do not have Chair Cars, this is the nicest option.
- Sleeper - If you don't need AC, this is a better price.
- 3rd Class – This is the Indian train you have seen in movies, with people hanging off the sides. It has no assigned seating and is only good if you are really committed to having the most authentic experience possible. If you are that much of a hippie ( I kid! I love you guys. Ish) do remember that you will not have anywhere to put your bag, and you probably won't get a seat. This is also available at night.... but don't.
- On trains, bring food – you can only get unhealthy deep fried stuff and sweet white bread sandwiches, and the chai wallah (seller) will wake you up at 5am. (And 5:05, 5:10 and so on.) Sleep with your passport etc under your head, and bring earplugs or ipod. Some people even bike-lock their bags to the bottom of the bunk, but keep valuables on your bunk with you no matter what. A lot of folks in India are used to the volume of life in general being a lot louder than in the West – some people they talk loudly the whole night if they are not tired or are squished 4 to a berth (not technically allowed, but happens when trains are overbooked). It's important to remember that they and don't consider it rude – sometimes they even sing. So try to be chill about it, even when you are exhausted!
- You will be stared at. Let's just be honest about that. Like, epic staring. Open mouthed, crowd around you, intense staring. There is nothing you can do about it. Just remember that it is not rude here, so don't get offended. You're just a neat novelty! That is my mantra about many things in India “It is not rude here, it is not rude here, it is not rude here.....”
- If you are a dude, do not get too friendly, smiley etc with any women until you really know them – you could really offend their modesty. Prostitutes dress just like other women, but they can be identified because they hold eye contact, so trying to make eye contact with all women can be problematic.
- An average tip for a porter, beggar, etc is 10 rupees. They sometimes call this “baksheesh,” although that can also mean a bribe. (So can 'Tea Money” - if you get asked for a bribe, pay it. Just pay it. Give up. See number 1.)You do not need to tip auto rickshaw drivers. At touristy restaurants tip 10% or just round up a bit.
- Many Indians WILL NOT tell you no. They will tell you “5 minutes” “Maybe” or “Soon” instead (the only exception is at restaurants, which often are out of more than half of the menu's dishes.) This is a major problem when asking for directions – they will make stuff up rather than admit they don't know and potentially disappoint you. Do not point and ask “Is it this way?” because the answer will be yes. Ask “Which way is it?” instead. Its not foolproof, but you have a better chance of getting a correct answer.
- Some of the religious men offering you a flower and red bracelet on the street (especially in Varanasi, Pushkar, and also in Kathmandu, Nepal) are trying to cheat you. Do not take the flower. (They do this prayer thing for the happiness of your relatives in heaven and then demand up to 1000 rupees.) Say you already did the ceremony in Varanasi. You can get this genuine prayer inside a temple or ashram if you want it.
- If someone is dressed as a god, animal, or in fancy costume in any way – and you take a photo – you will owe them 10 rupees. Sometimes its totally worth it, just remember this before snapping away.
- Spend 2 to 3 weeks in Rasjastan. It is the most magical part of India (not necessarily the most beautiful). Jasailmer, Pushkar, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Bundi are all amazing – in my opinion you can skip Jaipur. I suggest heading straight to Jasailmer (it's the farthest away) on a night train from Delhi and have it be your first city. Its amazing – do a camel safari. Drink a lot of masala chai in Rajasthan -its the best in India. Thalis are also good here – a selection of foods served on a metal tray.
- Delhi is awesome, but you might hate it at first - like, really hate it. It may seem dirty, insane, charmless and intolerable! BUT - if you go back a second time it will seem completely modern, clean and pleasant compared to most of India. Take a cycle rickshaw around Old Delhi – the madness and chaos made it one of my favourite things I did in India. Other highlights are the Gandhi Smrti, Q'Tub Minar, Hamayan's Tomb and the Jama Masjid.
- Try to engage in some spiritual activities – yoga at an ashram, Ganga Aarti ( night prayer ceremony on the Ganges) Tibetan Buddhist meditation in Dharamsala. I mean, don't be a douche about it ;) and get all serious, but try some of it out. After all, when in Rome! (Or, like, Udaipur...)
- Stay away from meat. Just don't even touch it – other than seafood in Goa and Kerala (Keralan fried fish is one of my favourite meals ever – you have to try it!) Many people who get sick get sick from the meat. I suggest hand sanitizing a lot until your stomach gets used to India....keep some ciprofloxin on hand in case you get an attack of traveler's stomach. Lassi (yoghurt shakes) are safe – just ask if they use mineral water for the ice. I personally think that street food is safe – veg stuff. If its a busy stall it should be fine – sweets, samosas and kachooris are all good! Food at hotels is invariably bland and overpriced – get out of the hotel! Western food is uniformly terrible unless it is from a restaurant that only serves that one type of cuisine...
- Malaria, typhoid, dengue and Japanese encephalitis are all here – do not get bitten by mosquitoes. Rabies is also a problem – the biggest culprits are dogs, monkeys and bats, and there are a lot of those – especially at train stations.
- It is up to you if you give money to kids, but I never, ever do. I usually give to disabled people and the elderly, but not kids – they are often being controlled by little slave owners who keep their earnings. Even if this is not the case, they are being kept from school to do this, and they make more than you think they do.
- Read Shantaram. Everyone does, and it's for a reason. Other Indian fiction that I love includes:
- A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
- A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
- The Inheritance of Loss – Kiran Desai
- White Tiger – Aravind Adega
- The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roi
Reading about Indian culture, religion and history will also get you prepared – you will notice the small things that are easily missed, and your experience will be much richer for it.
- Midnight's Children – Salman Rushdie
- Don't eat cut fruit from the street – it has been sprayed with dirty water from a bucket to make it look fresh and appealing – hello dysentery! Use your swiss army knife to peel and cut your own fruit.
- They will not understand your accent – try shortening the vowel sounds. (Our English overemphasizes vowels, their English overemphasizes consonants). You can also try a Hindi accent – it works! Therefore, Aarey Colony (where we lived in Mumbai) became Ahdie Chllonny. Use British terms whenever they exist – ie: capsicum instead of green pepper, lift instead of elevator, torch instead of flashlight, plasters instead of band-aids etc.
- No, dudes are not getting gay everywhere you look. Men here hold hands, cuddle, spoon and vacation together without women – and its totally hetero. I still giggle, but it is totally normal here. Conversely, no PDAs at all for hetero couples, including hand holding.
- Do not listen to drivers when they claim that the hotel you are interested in is full/closed/bad/exploded – they just want to take you to a hotel that will pay them commission. Insist on going to the hotel you want to go to.
- Swastikas are everywhere – no one is a Nazi! Its a Hindu/Jain/Buddhist symbol meaning peace.
- If you take a local bus (ie: not a tourist “AC luxury bus”) there will be a narrow compartment of people squished in above you, and even more people on the roof. Because some rurally based people don't travel in vehicles very often they can get motion sick quite easily and then puke out the windows (if you're lucky they puke OUT and not IN.) Just keep your window shut, because they also spit water, paan (tobacco stuff) and actual spit out the windows as well, and if you are on the bottom it will swing back in and land all over you. I know this from experience. *Shudder*
- Spitting. It happens. In public. A LOT. Giant lung clearing hoarking spitting. And its not considered rude, so it happens in a lot of places that would be unimaginable at home. Restaurants have sinks in the middle of the dining area – though they is meant to be for washing your hands, people use it more for spitting, so there are often bit gobs sitting there. I suggest that you use a hand wipe and refrain from the sink until AFTER you eat, so that you do not lose your appetite. (....it's not rude here, it's not rude here.....)
- Only use your right hand to eat and shake hands with. The left hand is considered dirty and for bathroom duties. Always wash your hands before you eat, or at least use a handiwipe – some restaurants will give you a fork and spoon, and some will not, so it is best to be prepared to use your hands.
- Get your leftover food packed up and take it to go, and then peel the plastic off and leave it in the street where a dog or cow will eat it - they depend on garbage to live. But make sure you remove the plastic – cows are dumb guys and will eat it if it smells like food and it twists up their guts and they just kind of die on the street. Sad.
- Check your sheets and bathrooms when you check in – hotels employ young men and they are invariably not used to domestic work because the women in their families have always done it for them. Therefore – they will often just make the bed instead of changing the sheets. Ick.
- Ladies, no shoulders or knees unless you are in Goa, or unless you want to be like a stupid insensitive European hippie. *Shakes fist* You will get used to the heat – I promise! A thin gauzy scarf can be used as a shoulder covering – and helps keep a sunburn at bay. Spaghetti straps, tank tops, skirts above the knee, shorts, tube tops – well, you can wear them if you want. But keep in mind that you are offending everyone around you, people are laughing and pointing when your back is turned and you are also propagating the stereotype that Western women are easy, cheap and inappropriate. Thanks for that. The exceptions are touristy restaurants and nightclubs/pubs. When swimming in places other than Goa's beaches or a hotel pool, you need to wear capris and a tee shirt – no bikinis.
- You can eat free meals, and even stay for free, at every Sikh Gurudwara (temple.) The most famous is the Golden Temple, in Amritsar where they even have dorms specifically for Westerners. It is an amazing place, a must–see. If you do stay or eat, make sure to offer a donation and be respectful of the worshipers. The Gurudwara is one of the only places where if someone approaches you to show you around they are not trying to get money out of you – so feel free to listen! The dude will probably be from Delta or Abbotsford – no kidding.
- Beer. Kingfisher is delicious (to a point – I'll explain) with a spicy curry or a samosa snack – but good luck getting it. First of all – any restaurant that is “Family” or “Pure Vegetarian” has no booze, and people will look at you like you are an unsavoury lout if you ask for some (there is a slightly seedy, shameful opinion of people who drink in India). Finding a bar can be really difficult – we have had to resort to Ruby Tuesdays and TGI Friday's (both ridonkulously expensive) a few times. Secondly, there are dozens of random “No Alcohol” days in India: Gandhi-ji's birthday, state holidays, Nehru's death date – and they always manage to fall on a day that you were planning on going on the piss. It sucks.
Finally, you might not want to drink all that much beer – in India all beer sold (including imports like Bud and Fosters that are actually made in India under license) must have a glycerol based additive. We can't figure out exactly why, but apparently it is a preservative? The additive gives the beer a dirty pennies taste, and gives MASSIVE hangovers after only 2 or 3 brewsks. There is a sneaky way to get around it (I learned this from Lonely Planet.) Take the beer and a glass of cold water. Open the beer and upend the bottle into the glass for a few minutes, and watch in horror as all of this weird oily stuff comes out and swirls around in the water – it is heavier than the beer and therefore will come out first, leaving 95% of your actual beer still in the bottle. The remainder will be fresher tasting and won't beat your head in the next day. Ta-da!
- Homestays are amazing – seek them out whenever possible. This is often the only place where you can get real homecooked Indian food made by a woman (women in the North do not work outside the home except in Delhi and Punjab) The food, the atmosphere, engaging people in conversation, participating in daily life – this is what traveling is all about. Forgo fancy hotels - I recommend as many homestays as you can do. My 2 favourites were Orchard Huts (ask for Nitin) in the Chamba Valley, and Green Palm Home (ask for Thomas) near Alleppey.
- When you take buses, make sure that your valuables are with you in a smaller bag at all times, and if you have a few small locks affix them to the outer zippers of your big pack. Your bag with most likely be tied to the roof of the bus, where up to 20 young men will be riding. It is not uncommon for people to have their bags rifled through. This comes more from curiosity about what weirdo backpackers have in their packs than from people actually wanting to steal, but that does happen occasionally. It is better not to tempt people by leaving cameras, Ipods, laptops and money in your big pack. Also, make sure that the ropes attaching your bag to the bus are secure – you do not want your bag flying down the highway and getting run over by a tractor and a herd of water buffaloes.
- Women, if a man grabs you or is leering too much – YELL. The boob grabbing stems from the stereotypes about Western women that 40 years of stupid hippies and Western media have helped to spread (see point 28), so men will try to pull shit with you that they would never ever dream of doing to an local woman. This is the one time that yelling is effective – he will be shamed and yelled at by the people around. While it is rare, when it does happen the most common time is in an auto rickshaw – either by passersby or the driver himself(We know 2 women that have had their boobs grabbed in Jaipur). Like I said – Yell.
- Don't let people give you back ripped or otherwise damaged bills – at many places they will not accept them, and the only way they get moved around as currency is in the pockets of gullible backpackers. Hand the Rupees back if they are even torn slightly and ask for new ones.
- Try not to need the doctor. Private practices do not seem to exist – you must go to a crowded hospital for all care. The hospital I went to was supposed to be a swanky one that Bollywood stars choose, but we waited for 4 hours in a dirty, crowded, noisy waiting room filled with queue jumpers and starey-pantses. If it is not an emergency, just wait til Thailand. Or Singapore. Or anywhere else in the world.
- The exteriors and common spaces of pretty much all buildings are decrepit and dirty – but inside the flats some are really nice! I apologized continuously for the feral dog and garbage-filled lobby and halls of our building (which I had described as “Baghdad Hospital Chic” when I first saw them) to some Indian friends. They looked around, genuinely confused and said it was 'fine' and 'normal.' There seems to be no way to tell if the apartment you are about to enter will be nice or not – so don't panic if you feel like you are entering a charnel house. Chances are the flat itself will be decent and clean.
- Shoes off in all temples, most small shops, some guesthouses and all people's homes. You can tell if it is expected of you if there is a pile of flip flops (they call them chappals or slippers) by the entrance.
- If food or drink is offered to you in a private home or shop, it is extremely rude to turn it down (unless you are vegetarian and the food is 'non-veg,' my favourite Indianism.) Even if it is not to your taste, try to eat/drink some.
You might spend most of your time in India wishing it was over, and when you leave you will start planning ways to get back. I promise.
I can give more specific advice on itineraries, guesthouses and trains – just leave a comment with your question and I will try to answer it.