There’s no denying that travelling to India can be a major culture shock, especially on your first visit. It’s a huge and bewildering country, with many different religions and cultures, and cities that roar with traffic and bustle with activity non-stop. So how to prepare for this assault on the senses?
By far the most common complaint reported by first-time visitors to India is fatigue – simply trying to do too much in too little time. India is vast, colourful and addictive, but have realistic expectations about how much you can see. A wisely planned visit to a particular area can deliver far more of the unique texture and spirit of the place. And remember, India isn’t going anywhere – you can return time and time again.
Get out of the city
Though perhaps a cliché, the only way to get a true sense of India is to visit smaller villages. The real benefit is that it’ll get you out of the sprawling and vastly overpopulated cities. Once you’ve cleared your head, say with a trip to the mountains or into the slower-moving land of Kerala in the south, you’ll be far better placed to enjoy the famous hospitality of the Indian urbanites.
Watch what you eat and drink
A dodgy stomach is pretty common for first-timers in India. That doesn’t mean you should rule out street food, but try to stick to peeled fresh fruit and foods that have been either boiled or fried. Stay on the bottled water and avoid salads or ice.
Don’t be too precious about your personal space
This isn’t really a popular concept in India. You will be squished on public transport and squashed in lifts. People will ask seemingly intrusive personal questions that you may find intimidating. Remember that this is a wholly different culture and the questions are merely indicative of the locals’ polite interest in you.
Be aware that India has a relatively modest culture. Covering arms and legs is a simple step toward respecting this. Indians are forgiving of those who aren’t familiar with their culture, but you can quickly make a good impression by, for instance, removing your shoes before entering someone’s home. This is particularly important when entering a sacred space, like a temple. Also, if you see shoes outside a shop, it’s a sign to remove your own.
Watch those feet and hands
Feet are considered to be unclean in India, so if you touch something with your feet it’s appropriate to swiftly apologize. Similarly, eating or passing objects with your left hand is considered unpleasant for reasons best left to the imagination. If unsure of local customs, keep an eye out for what others do and imitate.
Remember that Indian time is relative
You may well find yourself waiting half an hour in India when your friend has assured you they will be five minutes. Traffic and other interruptions can also mean that getting around can take a lot longer than expected. Build in plenty of room for unexpected waits and make sure to check opening hours – many government offices and shops close in the afternoon for lunch.
While “don’t go down dark streets alone” might seem a bit obvious, there are plenty of straightforward ways to avoid subtle dangers in India. Carrying huge quantities of cash isn’t a good idea anywhere, but in crowded Indian cities pickpocketing is a very present problem. Equally, haggling at a market can, at times, become an unpleasant, heated exchange. Inexperienced visitors are advised to try to stay cool. Be pleasant but firm, and don’t allow yourself to be irritated.
Be prepared for noise
One way of ensuring you can have a bit of personal space, albeit in your head, is to have earphones with you to shut out some of the surrounding din – there’s nothing like the sheer clamour of an Indian city.
Avoid deals that seem too good to be true
Government shops are probably the easiest way to avoid running foul of scams, but simple rules like paying for things with cash, to avoid card cloning scams, may save you a lot of unnecessary trouble later in your journey. You should also pay particular attention if you’re arranging to have things sent home by post, as it’s not unknown for shops to take your payment and send worthless items instead.