Tips for your First Time in India
India is my favourite place in the world. It has the highest density of extreme poverty on the planet, the highest number of vegetarians, the second-highest and fastest growing population, an extreme array of landscapes, cultures, languages and religions. The regions vary dramatically yet everywhere you go there is something just so India about it all. There is a saying that we were all Indian in at least one past life, and I believe it. There is something about your first time landing in India that just feels like coming home.
- Decide what kind of experience you want to have
They call it the Indian subcontinent for a reason, India is a big place. There are snowy mountains, barren deserts, misty jungles, filthy cities and pristine beaches. What experience do you want to have? The typical first-timer experience is the Golden Triangle of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Or you can follow the water and head to Goa and Kerala for beaches and waterways. Or maybe you're going to see the tigers of Madhya Pradesh and lions of Gujarat? Or trekking and white water rafting the Himalayas? Or paying tribute to the holy cities of Varanasi, Pushkar and Amritsar? Decide what kind of experience you want to have and plan accordingly.
- Go slowly
India is not known for its big ticket spectacles. There's no Disneyland and no Universal Studios. It's not a race to get to see everything. It's about experiencing India. Go slow and give yourself plenty of time to explore and get to know the feel of the towns as you go. Plus, traveling can be exhausting given the state of the buses and trains and journeys take much longer than they should, so spend more time exploring and less time getting there by reducing your number of destinations.
- Try to incorporate both craziness and stillness
India has both. The insanity of places like Delhi and Varanasi is great but there are places you can go to escape the pollution and the traffic. There's the serenity of Dharmasala (Dalai Lama's digs) and the back roads of Goa. India is a loud, busy place. But step outside of it from time to time to soak in even more of this big, beautiful country.
- Pack appropriately
Both women and men should cover their shoulders and knees, and you'll need to be fully covered for holy sites. If the shape of your breasts are visible through your top you'll need a scarf in some areas, as well as to cover any tight pants with a long top. Basically, you're not meant to be visibly female. Hide those womanly curves! I'd also recommend taking your own first aid kit, swiss knife and torch. Expect everything!
- Stay well
Do not eat anything from a food stand that may have been sitting there awhile. Choose a stall that makes the food on the spot for you. Always carry your own wet wipes or toilet paper and hand sanitiser for toilet stops. Wash your hands after you touch anyone or anything. Never drink the tap water, it is the leading cause of illness in the country and people are still dying. This includes salad washed in the water, so unless it has a peel (bananas and oranges, etc) don't consume it fresh and stick to freshly cooked foods. The land loves bread fried in butter but if you want to get home in the same healthy condition you left in, try to skip the chapati for rice as much as you can. It's normal to avoid meat altogether in India to avoid the health risk and assimilate to the mainly vegetarian country.
- Do your homework
It's pretty quick to find out the "do not travel" zones and what body language constitutes rudeness in India. Do a quick Google search and find out what not to do before you go.
- Remain calm
It seems crazy at first. Things can get overwhelming fast for a first timer stepping off the plane in a big overcrowded city. But give it a few days and you'll realise there's method behind the madness. Over 1 billion people live in this country in relative harmony, and sometimes it takes awhile but they still get things done. Everyone will pay attention to you, but it's not necessarily malicious or rude. Once you can see past the smells and the jeering you can see India for what it is. A spiritual motherland where humanity is as it's rawest.
You've booked a ticket to India. Congratulations, you're about to change forever.