India is not for the faint hearted or the easily confused. In fact, it’s said to be the hardest place to travel to as a backpacker!
After a few weeks in the north of the country, I put together a few rules that I think are essentials to survive your first trip to India.
1 – Don’t make India your first solo travel.
Honestly, if this had been my first trip, I would have locked myself in my room and never come out again. You need some confidence in your own traveler skills to navigate India. Otherwise, you’re doomed.
2 – In the streets, look alive.
This is not the kind of place where you can walk around thinking about something else or reading your map. Between the crazy traffic, the cows and the people, you need to be very aware of your surroundings if you want to survive (literally).
3 – Repeat “No spices, no chili”.
Just get used to saying it very forcefully before every meal, even breakfast. If you say it when you order, then you can send your meal back when they serve it full of spices, as they inevitably will.
4 – Don’t smile when people stare.
I talked about that before: people stare a lot, and as a woman it can get uncomfortable when men do it. But it’s not a threat. On the other hand, smiling back can be considered as rude or flirtatious. Better to avoid it, and to keep your smile for when you’re in a conversation with someone and there’s no double meaning possible.
5 – Divide every price by two.
It’s the standard. You know it, they know it, just keep insisting until you get it.
6 – Dress appropriately.
It might seem completely obvious, but from the number of white people in shorts and dresses I saw, it might need some repeating. For women and men : cover your legs and shoulders and don’t wear anything to tight and revealing. For women, you have to cover up your cleavage, but you can show your belly!
7 – Never pull out your map in public.
It’s very important to appear as if you know what you’re doing. As soon as you start looking lost, people will try to take advantage. When lost, hide somewhere to look at your map or, more efficiently, ask your way to a passer by or a shop owner.
8 – Stick with families.
Families are nice. There’s women and children and a man looking over them. No one is going to bother them, and you know they’re not going to try to sell you something, lie to you or send you to the hotel run by their cousin. You’ll feel safer sticking with a family in the train or waiting for the bus.
9 – Be careful with the water.
Forget what I always say about pills and your own drinking bottle. India’s water is too terrible for even that. Sadly, there’s no other choice but to buy bottled water. When buying, always check that the lid is tightly sealed. Ask for “no ice” in your drinks, and don’t eat any fruits or vegetables that you have not peeled, cooked or washed yourself.
What’s more, if you’re staying in India for a long time, consider buying electrolytes. The bottled water there does not contain any minerals, and after a while you might start feeling faint or ill because of this deficiency.
10 – Don’t be afraid of cows.
I used to think it was just a cliché that India was full of cows, but it’s not. They’re everywhere on the street, and their horns are sharp. Still, they’re not aggressive at all, so no need to be scared. Just step around them like everybody and keep walking.
11 – Think before snapping a picture.
Always ask before taking a picture of someone, otherwise you will be considered very rude. India has also many religious sites where taking pictures is considered hugely disrespectful. For example, it’s forbidden to take pictures of the burning ground in Varanasi, and I even heard stories of people getting beaten up because they were seen taking pictures there anyway. So, think on it and don’t hesitate to ask if you’re not sure of what’s allowed.
12 – Don’t believe everything people tell you.
Again, it might seem obvious, but I’ve seen people getting scammed so easily simply because they believed everything that they were told. Many people will tell you the truth, some will lie to gain something, some will say yes to something rather than saying they don’t know, and some will do what I call the “Indian lie”, which is just a slight exaggeration out of habit and not out of any bad intention. For example : “Yes I know this place”, or “It’s at least 20 kilometers this way”, or “He is my best friend”. When you need some information on something, ask several different people about it so you can be sure of the answer.
13 – Understand the nod.
Aaah, the nod. To say “yes”, Indians don’t nod the way we do. Instead, they wag their heads from side to side. I didn’t know about that and, for the first few days, thought it was a gesture of disagreement or indecision, which was not helping me communicate at all.
14 – Don’t expect everything to go according to plan.
It won’t. You’ll get lost, your train will be late and you’ll never meet up with that guy. I found Indians were really good at dealing with the unexpected. They never get angry or frustrated. The train is late? They’ll just take a nap on the platform. There’s no electricity? Here’s a candle. They’re lost? Let’s just walk around. So take a page out of the local’s book on this one, otherwise you might spend your trip feeling very frustrated.
15 – Be cautious, not scared.
Surviving something is good, enjoying it is even better. Be aware and alert, but don’t stare down everybody trying to talk to you or avoid street food because of fear! Roll with the punches and think responsibly, and you’ll have an amazing first time in India!