Overview & Advice:
India is a calidascope of contradictions. Enchanting & colorful yet sadly polluted, astoundingly beautiful with incredible wealth & crushing poverty, rich & ancient culture that is often difficult to navigate, & a stunning diverse landscape with serious environmental problems. In short, I have never traveled to a country that can both captivate and horrify me simultaneously. However, you may also never travel to a place with such warm & hospitable people, delicious & rich cuisine, diverse landscapes and climate, and all pervading spirituality. Although many guide books can provide more specific details for your journey India can be an adventure for new arrivals & a challenge for the unprepared. Although India is intensely beautiful and ancient, it can be a shock to the system when you arrive as over 1 billion people inhabit a land about 1/3 the size of the United States & with that crushing population comes miraculous advances and problems. The following is some advice that will help you avoid the many hassles of traveling in India:
Visa: There are several types of Visas a foreigner needs to visit India from business, journalist, missionary, transit, student, medical, research, and most commonly tourist visa. Although you can request a visa for up to 10 years depending on the type, the most common request is for the 6 month tourist visa which costs $60 US dollars however, after fees can cost as much as $80-$100 per person. There are several options to getting your visa. You can show up to your local Indian Embassy in major cities such as New York City, Washington D.C, Los Angeles and other major cities however check with your local Indian Embassy first. You can also mail your passport to Indian Visa processing centers with required documentation and wallet size passport photos (and your passport), and you now have the option of getting a Visa on arrival at airports in India. However, please click on the following links for more information and follow the instructions carefully:
Poverty: Although India has made vast economic strides in the last 20-30 years and many more Indians consider themselves an upward middle class, a majority of Indians still subsist at or below the poverty level, making around $1500-$2000 per family annually. With the skyrocketing costs of accommodation in many cities and more people then ever leaving their villages to try and make a living in the cities slums and shantytowns pop up every day, with many of them being knocked down without warning. Vast contrasts in India exist between the wealthy and the poor. You will often see a beautiful modern building or house next to a few corrugated metal shacks with people sleeping on the street. In addition, the amount of adult and child beggars and people sleeping out on the street you see per day is astounding and shocking for first time visitors. Beggars will approach you asking for money. Although it seems cruel, if you want to help you can volunteer or donate to numerous NGO's helping the poor instead of giving beggars money as it typically goes to a local gang. In addition, after giving one beggar money you may be swarmed by additional beggars causing an uncomfortable situation. We have listed some recommended NGO's to donate your time and money to that assist the needy:
Luxury: If you are seeking first class luxurious accommodation and travel options, India provides some of the best. Few countries cater to high end, first class travel & opulent accommodation, transportation, shopping & dining options then India. From the Palace On Wheels to Five Star Hotel's & Boutique renovated Haveli's & some of the best restaurants in the world, India provides options for all budgets. For more information on luxurious travel options please click on the following links:
Drinking Water: Unless you have lived in India for several years or your body is used to similar parasites and bacteria DO NOT drink tap or well water in India as it is untreated & this is an almost guaranteed way to get dysentery, parasites, or some type of bacterial infection. According to water.org/country/india "Most water sources (in India) are contaminated by sewage & agricultural runoff." Although access to drinking water has been made the World Bank estimates that 21% of communicable diseases are related to unsafe water" (www.water.org/country/india). Although it's safest to drink water treated mineral water from out of hygienically sealed bottles, some restaurants offer treated water. However, plastic waste from mineral water bottles is a big problem in India in addition to some unscrupulous people collecting used plastic water bottles, filling it with untreated water and reselling it to the public. Always be certain to examine your water bottle before consuming, checking if the seal looks broken. Some Indian street food such as Pani Puri or fresh fruit often uses untreated water for the tamarind spiced water filling or to give fruit a shine. Our rule with Indian street food is if a dish is thoroughly cooked and has a line of people cueing up, as long as they are not using untreated non boiled water, you should be fine (eat at own discretion).
Vaccines: Getting inoculations (vaccinations) prior to traveling to India is a wise idea, especially if traveling into the countryside where you at more risk of malaria and typhoid. Typically people get vaccinated about 1 month before travel however this can fluctuate. In addition, you may be prescribed Doxycycline or another anti-malerial medication by your physician. Please click on links below for more information on vaccinations:
Headlamp: Electricity load shedding and power outages are still a consistent problem in many parts of India. A headlamp is important in these cases or if out at night. I prefer Petzel or Black Diamond.
Generosity: In our travels to India we have been overwhelmed by the generosity & general inquisitive nature of many Indians. I can't tell you how many times we have been invited to stay over peoples homes, given proper directions and excellent advice only after meeting and talking to several Indians for a few minutes. Although there is advice on touts, scams, and harassment, don't be afraid to engage with locals no matter where you visit as the vast majority of the time people have good intentions and only want to help. Out of most of the countries we have traveled to, including our own, most Indians are some of the friendliest people you will meet. It's best to use your intuition in these situations, as you do at home. If something doesn't feel right, it probably is not.
Touts: Although there is greater income equality, the vast majority of Indians live at or under the poverty line. Competition is fierce to make an livable wage and provide for yourself and your family. In comes touts who prey on foreign and domestic tourists alike. You will no doubt be hassled by several touts a day, especially in more touristed areas and outside of train/bus stations. Since bargaining is the cultural norm in much of India, touts prey on foreigners inability to know correct prices and typically always try to overcharge for their services. They also pull scams such as offering insanely cheap rickshaw/taxi rides if you visit a friend or family members stores, lie about your lodging being closed, burned down, or "not good" and take you to a friends hotel where you pay more & they get a commission, and do the same for restaurants. If approached on the street by a random person to attempts to sell you guide services or take you to a store politely refuse and ignore them.
Distinguishing between Genuine Holy men (Sadhus) & Fakes: Click here for advice and more information, especially for woman, about being approached by self proclaimed holy men.
Be Polite yet Firm: During your travels you will undoutably get hassled, especially if female, however always remember if bothered by a tout or another persons advances, be polite and firm in your refusal to accept their offer. However use your intuition as you don't want to be so restrictive that you pass up on an amazing opportunity.
First Aid Kit: Although India has pharmacies all over the place where you can purchase medications that you typically need a prescription for in western countries, taking a first aid kit with Cipro, anti dyaria medication, bandages, and antibiotics is a good idea. Although you can purchase many of these items in India, you may need them far away from civilization or when pharmacies are closed.
Avoiding Unsanitary Food: Food poisoning & travelers diarrhea is a risk you may have to endure when traveling India. We took the following steps to keep our belly's as healthy as possible:
-Avoid street food that has been freshly washed in tap water (such as fruit & uncooked veggies) and avoid street food that looks old or not freshly cooked. In addition, visiting crowded street food stalls that make fresh & hot veggie dishes is a good way to ensure you won't get sick
-Traveler's Diarhea is an ailment you may have to deal with while traveling in India. It typically consists of a few days of diaharea with loose and watery stool for a few days or a intermittent pattern of diareaha throughout your trip. Antibiotics like Cipro can be helpful in reducing symptoms.
-When eating meat, know your source and make sure it is fresh and cooked thoroughly.
-When eating with your hands make sure to sanitize scooping food.
-Avoid eating at train station restaurants if you can, especially in less touristed towns, as they are known for serving old food with bacteria. Here is an excellent website that gives more information about sanitation and hygiene issues within India:
Use your Right Hand: Eat and shake hands with your right hand as traditionally the left hand is used for wiping your backside & other unsanitary things.
Bring Toilet Paper & a Face Cover: Bring toilet paper if traveling to more rural parts of India unless you want to use your hand and a face cover for riding in rickshaws or in crowded, dusty, and polluted towns to protect your lungs.