In my previous post I gave some practical tips about how to travel around, find a hotel, where to eat, etc. Now I want to talk about even more important things.
Personal safety is probably the number one concern, so let’s start with it. India is an extremely safe place. During my three trips, one with an organized group and two alone with a backpack, and after talks with numerous people who have visited India at various times, I’ve never heard of anyone ever getting into a dangerous situation. This is of course no proof, but I am convinced that one is much more likely to get in trouble anywhere in the western world than in India.
I guess the worst thing than can happen to you is to get lost in the narrow streets of the old towns or to step into a pile of cow shit. For the first problem there is an easy solution — simply hire a rickshaw and let the driver bring you to a location you already know. However there is no solution for the second problem — sooner or later you will get your shoes dirty.
Still, there are many annoyances to watch out for. For example the ever-present merchants. Everyone, and I mean everyone, will try to get you to look into their shop or the shop of their brother/father/cousin. Even young guys who look like students and tell you that they simply want to show you around or talk to you in order to improve their English work on commission. In general, the better someone speaks English, the more specialized he is on tourists. If you ever ask for directions, the person you asked will insist to accompany you, and he will get you into a few shops along the way. Rickshaw drivers sometimes drive you around for free if you agree to go into a few shops and look at gems, jewelry, silk goods, etc.
This is simply a fact of tourist life in India, so you might as well accept it. In fact, do go into a few shops and buy some souvenirs. Many things are very beautiful and cost close to nothing. But be weary of promises like “highest quality,” “pure gold,” “very rare,” “handmade,” “made by my teacher, who is a famous artist,” etc. And finally, can you really be the first customer of the day at 3 pm?! Indians will never steal from you directly, but they have a million ways of making you willingly part with your cash.
There are two further sources of trouble that I have to mention. Monkeys like to steal things, so close all doors and windows of your hotel room before going out or going to bed. And be aware of groups of dogs. No need to worry during the day, but early in the morning or late at night the dogs sometimes form small groups and can get annoying. If they start barking or getting aggressive, a firm tap with your foot will usually make them pull back.
A rabies vaccination is probably a good thing to have, as well as tetanus and hepatitis A and B. Talk to your doctor well in advance because some of the vaccinations need to be repeated before they offer full protection. If you are of the worrying kind, you might also want to think about malaria tablets, water purifying tablets, something against diarrhea, etc.
OK, so now I’ve gotten you to India, helped you a bit with finding a hotel, something to eat and I’ve given you a few hints on how to travel around. But what should you see? Basically you have two alternatives: see what tourists are supposed to see and see everything.
If you travel with a group on a chartered bus, you will only be shown the tourist part of India. You will see magnificent colors, grand palaces and temples, sumptuous gardens, happy and well-fed Indian people. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s just a quarter of the whole picture. In my opinion one has to experience the rest too: walk around in the old towns, ride in a bicycle rickshaw or a tuk-tuk, give the driver directions when he doesn’t speak any English and doesn’t even know the place you want to go to, but he still drives off in fear that some other driver might snipe you up. You will still get to your destination, because after three crossings the driver will start asking for directions. Eat some samosa or pakora that you buy on the street, talk to older men who invite you to drink tea with them, watch women doing their laundry or ironing directly on the street, take a picture of all the children playing around you, walk into a house, greet the oldest person in the house, tell people a million times where you come from, what your job is, if you are married, how many children you have, etc, etc, etc. These too are experiences that you should not miss.
After you’ve visited the tourist attractions in a town, plan at least a day without an itinerary. Stroll around the streets of the old city, find your way into the Muslim part of town, watch skillful craftsmen work with metal, wood or cloth. Visit a vegetable market, a Muslim meat and fish market, etc. Hire a tuk-tuk and let the driver drive you to a nearby village. Look around there. All doors are open, so walk into the yards, try to make a contact, then walk into the house. Take some pictures. You are guaranteed to have at least 30 kids jumping around you, so don’t expect to be able to photograph unnoticed. At some point maybe you can buy the children some bonbons (50 pieces for 50 Rs). If you are traveling by car, make your driver stop at a few road crossings. At larger crossings there will inevitably be medium-sized markets, lots and lots of travelers waiting for the bus, car and truck repair shops, places to eat, fruit and vegetable sellers, etc.
When you explore the real India be also prepared to see lots of misery and unhappiness, crippled and blind people, children with no clothes playing in the dirt, lots of flies, cow shit and so on. That’s India too.
Before I close I want to mention a few things that you should take along as they will make your journey more enjoyable. Even if you are not the backpacker type, travel around with a backpack. It’s very flexible, you can carry all your stuff and still have your hands free. Bring a metal chain, maybe 1.50 meters (5 feet) long, and a safety lock. You can leave your luggage unattended, fix it while traveling, lock it up if you want to take a nap, etc. The lock will come in handy for locking up your hotel room. Budget hotels do not have locks integrated in the door but small hanging locks, which are quite flimsy. You will be much more relaxed if you know you’ve locked your room with a western type of lock. You don’t need anything big or heavy though.
Don’t forget ear plugs — you’ll need them. Take a power plug adapter, a mosquito spray, sun cream and a small flashlight because the electricity frequently gets cut off for minutes at a time. Bring an address book, copies of your passport and flight tickets and maybe a few passport photos, just in case.
And that’s it. There is nothing complicated about it. Just find a friend or two and take the plunge — you won’t regret it!