As a first time traveler to India, I thought I’d share some of my observations for others wishing to take their first trip to this diverse, fascinating and often frustrating country.
Look After Yourself, Because No One Else Will!
In India, the same duty of care that we have come to expect in developed countries doesn’t exist. Building sites are often not fenced off, and sometimes it’s not clear where a safe walking path is. Even at tourist attractions, there are often unsafe areas (unfenced drops of several meters or unstable ground). The same goes for footpaths, which often uneven, can end without warning, or have no clear delineation between vehicular areas and pedestrian areas.
Unless they are being paid to look after your welfare (eg a tourist guide), people will rarely stop you from doing something unsafe. Keep your wits about you, and use common sense. In India, your safety is your own responsibility.
Crossing the Road
Traffic laws in India are treated as a guide only, and often ignored completely. The only real rule is that the biggest vehicle has right of way. Vehicles go through red lights, overtake on the wrong side of the road and even go the wrong way down one way streets. Horns are used constantly, not as a form of insult, but a friendly warning; “I’m here and I’m coming through”.
Pedestrian lights and zebra crossings are rare, and should not be trusted. Road vehicles will not give way to pedestrians, even if the pedestrian has right of way.
The safest way to cross the road is to look for an overpass or underpass. If there is neither of these available, pause before crossing to get the “rhythm” of the traffic. Watch the speed and flow, and cross one lane at a time. Walk assertively, making eye contact with motorists where possible. Don’t hesitate once you have made your mind up; walk in a predictable straight line, maintaining an even speed where possible, smaller vehicles will anticipate your actions and adjust. No one wants to hit you, but if you make unpredictable or erratic moves, they may be unable to react in time.
There is also safety in numbers. If you are crossing in a busy place, don’t go it alone, move with the herd. Don’t follow blindly, but a large group of pedestrians is much less likely to get hit by a motorcycle than an individual!
Tap Water is Poison!
Although it often looks clean, the water that comes out of the tap in India is as good as poison. It is often poorly treated and taken from the same place that people wash their clothes (or worse). The only safe things to drink either comes from a sealed container (like bottled water, but check the seal when buying) or has been boiled (chai, even from street vendors is generally safe).
When eating at a restaurant, they will often bring you a cup of water when you sit down. Don’t drink it, as it is probably tap water. Ask the waiter for a bottle of water if you’re thirsty. Also, avoid the cups, as they’ve probably been rinsed in tap water. In public places and hotels, there are often taps where you can fill up bottles with drinking water. Don’t trust these, even a sign says the water is “clean” or “filtered”.
When showering, remember not to allow the water to get into your mouth, and use bottle of water when brushing your teeth.
Watch What You Eat
A lot of the food in India is prepared in unhygienic conditions. Be careful what you eat and you will avoid spending a lot of unpleasant time in Indian toilets.
Eating good food in India doesn’t mean spending a lot of money. My most expensive meal was my worst, which gave me indigestion for a couple of days. In contrast, if prepared properly, street food can be safe and tasty! If you eat food from street stalls, try to go somewhere where it is freshly cooked (if they cook it in front of you, even better).
Going vegetarian in India is a good way to avoid many of the hygiene issues. It is easy to avoid meat, with many “pure veg” restaurants and all others offering a “veg” menu. When ordering meals on long distance trains, you will be offered the “veg” or “non veg” option. I went “pure veg” in India and didn’t miss meat once.
Regarding fruit; generally avoid it. It is likely to be covered in pesticides, then washed in questionable water. The big exception is bananas. Because of their thick skin, there’s not too much to worry about, I was doing through about a dozen small bananas every few days without a problem.
India is Crowded
There are people everywhere in India, especially in the major cities. Public places are crowded, and you will probably be jostled and pushed. Don’t get upset, it happens – a lot. Use it to your advantage, and don’t hesitate to gently move someone out of your way if necessary.
India is Dirty
Many Indians have a bad habit of throwing their rubbish on the ground or out of the window. Nobody bothers to pick this up and it leaves piles of garbage on city streets and along rail lines. Even in the most remote, pristine locations, I have seen piles of rubbish.
The air is also dirty in the cities, with many Indian cities amongst the world’s most polluted. Take care if you suffer from respiratory problems.
Watch for Wildlife
There is a lot of wildlife living mostly harmoniously with the human inhabitants of India. Here is some of the wildlife you may meet:
- Cows: These large, docile creatures are everywhere in India. Treat them with respect, as they are sacred to those of the Hindu faith.
- Goats: Mostly harmless, but will eat anything. Beware your loose clothing!
- Chickens: Someone’s dinner, try not to damage them!
- Dogs: Can be vicious (and possibly rabid), avoid where possible.
- Monkeys: Curious kleptomaniacs. Keep loose items secure and don’t eat around them. They may bite or scratch and often carry disease. Keep your distance.
- Squirrels: Found in most parks and gardens. Timid but cute. Harmless.
Beware of Pickpockets
I was lucky in India, and didn’t have any of my cash or belongings pinched. But it can be said that you make your own luck; I was careful. I kept my cash in a travel wallet that hooked inside the waistband of my jeans. It made them a little tighter than normal, but I could always feel my cash, and no one was getting to it unless I knew about it!
If you carry a backpack, keep it locked. It doesn’t have to be Fort Knox, just a simple padlock to deter opportunistic thieves. I bought a cheap combination lock, that meant I didn’t have to carry a key, but others couldn’t get in in a hurry. Same goes for your bags; even if you keep them with you, it only takes a few seconds when you’re not watching for someone to slip their hand into an unsecured bag.
There are cloakrooms at most railway stations. Don’t leave anything in a cloakroom that you can’t afford to lose. I lost nothing from my bags at these places, but I did see other bags returned with locks broken off or zips forced. The same goes for your hotel room; the vast majority of housekeeping staff are trustworthy, but it only takes one bad one to ruin a holiday. Don’t leave valuables lying around and anything that you can’t afford to lose (extra cash, passports, non-replaceable tickets) either take with you or leave them in the hotel safe.
Smile and be polite
A lot of Indians don’t bother with pleasantries (such as please and thank you), especially when buying things. Even the most gruff booking clerks at stations would mellow and smile when I said “thank you” when buying a ticket. It’s a little thing, but it seemed to be appreciated.
Nothing is Free in India (but it’s all dirt cheap)
In India, if someone offers you something for free, it’s probably a scam. Even most public toilets charge a small fee (between ₹1 – ₹10). If someone offers to guide you somewhere, they are probably touting.
Having said this, most things are very cheap by Australian standards. Most of my meals were less than ₹150 (about A$3.50), a 1 litre bottle of water at a railway station is ₹15 (about A$0.30).
BYO Toilet Paper!
If you’re using a public toilet in India, it’s best to take your own toilet paper. Most don’t supply it, and it can be very embarrassing to be caught short.
As mentioned earlier, you often have to pay a small fee to use a toilet (best to keep some ₹5 coins for this purpose). Toilets are generally plentiful and you can smell them long before you see them.
Generally, tipping is not expected in India, but do remember that the people in the service industry are often poorly paid. A small tip goes a long way, and I found that room staff and doormen were pleased even with a small tip such as ₹10 (about A$0.25). In restaurants, I generally tipped the waiters about 10% – 20% (working out to around A$0.25 – A$0.50), this seemed to be on the generous side of acceptable.
If you hire a private guide and/or driver, they will probably expect a tip. This would reasonably be a couple of hundred rupees for a half day (each), or up to ₹500 for a full day (if you’re happy with their service).
Interestingly, small business owners (such as street stalls) were not interested in tips. They seemed scrupulously honest in only taking the agreed upon amount, and giving the correct change (whether the agreed upon price was fair is a different matter).
You’re Not Going to Solve India’s Poverty
India has a huge amount of people living below the poverty line and beggars are everywhere (especially around tourist spots). The beggars often seek out foreigners, and can be very persistent; some will use their physical disabilities, age or even their baby to pull at your heartstrings.
It may sound harsh and unsympathetic, but I decided before I arrived, that I would not give money to any beggar. I was happy to tip those who waited on me, but I figured I was not going to make any difference to the lives of any of the beggars at all. Give them money for another meal if it makes you feel good, but don’t feel compelled, it’s too big for you to solve.
Is it safe?
The answer is, generally – very safe. This is dependent on the individual using common sense (don’t go down dark alleys, don’t wander through the slums alone), but in all of the normal places, it is very safe. People are generally friendly and will help you where they can. The locals may rip you off when you’re shopping, but they will make sure you get safely back to your hotel so that they can do it all again the next day.
Having said all of this, I’m led to believe that some men are sexist to the point of being physically abusive towards women, even those they don’t know. Although this is a small minority of the population, it is something to keep in mind. Some tips for female travelers is: avoid travelling alone where possible, don’t go out alone after dark and use the female only carriages when taking suburban trains. It would also help to dress modestly (long pants and a high necked, long sleeved top). The onus shouldn’t be on the female to detract attention from themselves, but it’s a sad fact that some men think that any slightly revealing outfit is an invitation.
For long distance transport, I recommend train. The rail system is very extensive, fairly efficient and dirt cheap. The bonus being that if you take an overnight train, you save a night in a hotel. For more information, see my post Indian Trains for beginners.
To get around cities, there are a number of options:
- Metro: There are metros built or under construction in Delhi, Jaipur, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Chennai. These are the fastest way to get around a city, and are cheaper than a taxi.
- Suburban train: There are suburban trains in many Indian cities. These are very cheap (5 to 15 rupees per ticket) and can be a quick way to get around. Avoid these trains in peak hours, as they can get horrendously full.
- Taxi or autorickshaw: There are a huge number of taxis and autorickshaws in Indian cities. Every time you exit a railway station or tourist attraction, they will start yelling at you to use their vehicle. If you do want to use one, make sure you negotiate the price in advance and are very clear as to where they will take you (I had a couple of bad experiences where I was taken to the wrong place, then charged extra to take me to where I originally asked them to take me). If you’re taking a taxi from a railway station, use the pre-pay counter where available. This stops any arguments. Don’t accept any offers from taxi touts inside railway stations, you WILL be ripped off (trust me, I’ve been there).
- Bus: Don’t be scared to jump on a city bus. They are cheap, and generally as fast as a taxi. Google transit (through google maps) gives very good bus information in Indian cities. With the buses, you generally enter via the back door and exit via the front, however with some buses, men enter at the back, and ladies through the front. A conductor will take your fare. Be ready to get off at your stop, as they don’t hang around!
- Hire a car and driver: If you want to go to a number of different sites in a city, it can be very convenient to hire a car and Driver. In Agra, I wanted to visit the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. I hired a car, driver and guide for the day for a combined total of ₹2900 (about A$65). For this price, I got a clean air conditioned Toyota Camry with driver and a knowledgeable English speaking guide. They picked me up at the railway station, took me where I wanted to go, helped me buy my entry ticket, gave me a comprehensive tour (including suggesting good photo spots) found me a decent restaurant for lunch and dropped me off at the station when I was ready. It probably would have been cheaper to hire a local guide and go around by taxi, but this was much easier. Your hotel will be more than happy to arrange a car & driver and/or guide (they normally receive a commission).
How much should I budget per day
I found that I was spending around ₹1000 per day (not including long distance transport or hotels). At the time, this was around A$25, and included simple meals, basic snacks & drinks, basic souvenirs, local transport, tips and basic tourist attraction entry fees. If you are going to big tourist attractions (Delhi’s Red Fort, Agra’s Taj Mahal, etc), you will need to account for these separately. As an indication, entry to Delhi’s Red Fort was ₹300, the Taj Mahal was ₹750. Bear in mind that very few places will take credit card, so you’ll need to carry mostly cash.
I generally paid between A$25 and A$40 per night for my hotels. These were basic 2 – 3 star hotels with a private room, private bathroom and air conditioning. They were clean and in locations close to transport. I used Booking.com to find hotels (not an endorsement, just the website I use); look for hotels with a guest rating of 7 or better and carefully check the location on the website then verify with Google Maps.
For long distance trains, you can calculate your fares on the cleartrip website. If you’re doing a lot of travel by train, I recommend a rail pass. I bought 21 days in 1AC (the highest available) for US$396. This would have been halved if I had used 2AC (the next class down, but very acceptable).
Don’t overdo it
Indian cities get very hot and humid and can be a little overwhelming. Unless you’re on an organised tour, I recommend that you only try to see 2 – 3 attractions per day. This will leave plenty of time to enjoy them and give a relaxed pace for the day.
I found that generally, the best way to do things in the big cities was: leave the hotel after breakfast at around 10am (avoid the morning rush) and return to the hotel before 4pm (avoiding the afternoon rush). Rest until about 7pm, then head out for dinner. It may sound wasteful to be in your hotel for 3 hours in the afternoon, but I found it greatly reduced fatigue (especially in the more humid cities). Of course, this goes out the window if you’re doing a full day trip (such as a Agra from Delhi)
I hope that this advice provides some useful information for first time visitors to India. It truly is an unique and wonderful country, but it can be challenging for visitors from developed nations – the challenge is worth it for the unforgettable experiences.