On Traveling in India

If you are not accustomed to traveling in countries that are still “developing,” India can be disconcerting. Often travelers refer to “culture shock.” India is frequently fascinating and colorful, but facing the widespread poverty and beggars, the congestion, the pollution and litter, and the seemingly chaotic traffic can be exhausting. Often there are aspects that visitors love about the country, and often there are aspects that visitors hate.

But if you can be flexible, patient, and open to new experiences and to learning, the travel can be highly rewarding. Following are some suggestions that may help.

Learn About the Country Before You Go

Numerous good guidebooks are available, and travel blogs and online videos can help give a feel for the country.

For more in-depth background to help understand what you’ll see, many travelers recommend my own epic historical novels of India, India Treasures and the sequel, India Fortunes. Through the lives of the characters, you’ll feel as if you’re actually experiencing history as it happens, as well as learning about the religions, the arts, and the culture in general. (Available from Amazon.com; e-book versions through Smashwords.com.)

If you’ve traveled in third world countries before, you probably have some idea of what to expect in India. If you’ve only been in the more developed countries, talk with others who have been to India, read the general introductory material in guidebooks, and think realistically about what you expect and how comfortable you like to be when you travel.

It’s easier to go on a packaged tour, but also more expensive. Although many such tours are well run, you’re also likely to have a more “insulated” experience that is filtered through what the guides tell you and show you, with less contact with local people than if you travel on your own.

The following suggestions and comments are based on our own experiences and preferences, but we don’t have all the answers. If in doubt, follow your own instincts and common sense.

For Mid-Budget, Independent Travelers (see further down for suggestions that also include those on packaged tours):

Don’t try to do too much. Take your time and be patient. Traveling in India can be tiring, and the country can’t be rushed. Often unexpected delays or frustrations occur. Try to keep your sense of proportion — it’s all part of the experience!

It is tempting to try to see everything you’ve read about in the guidebooks, but rather than trying to visit a major sight or two every day, narrow your priorities. There is so much to see and do in India you won’t be able to do it all, anyway (I certainly haven’t, in six lengthy trips there!), so let loose of the need to try. Give yourself an opportunity to rest every few days and just enjoy what you’re experiencing.

Transportation. Do not try to drive yourself. India has one of the highest traffic accident rates in the world. Collisions often seem a hair’s-breadth away, and drivers pay little attention to traffic rules and continually honk their horns. Larger vehicles have the right of way over all smaller ones by virtue of size and intimidation, and cows, goats, scooters, pedestrians, and farm wagons on the roadway can complicate it further. Road surfaces can also sometimes be in extremely poor condition, and repair projects and other encroachments often narrow and impede the traffic lanes. Try to avoid traveling at night — it can be terrifying seeing the headlights of those big overloaded lorries bearing down on you, and sometimes vehicles are even without lights.

Consider hiring a car and driver for your entire time in a particular region. It costs less than you’d expect, and it gives you more flexibility, comfort, and convenience. Available through hotels and travel agencies, either locally or arranged in advance from home. Local taxis can also be hired for a day or more at a negotiated price.

You’ll have a better experience if you ensure the driver can communicate well with you (for example, speaking English well enough to understand what you want). And try to ensure that the driver will follow your instructions and not ignore you or try to redirect the trip against your wishes.

Always settle on a price before getting into a taxi or auto-rickshaw. You may be able to get a general idea of an appropriate cost by asking the staff at your hotel. After agreeing on a price, to avoid misunderstandings, you may want to write the agreed amount on a piece of paper and show it to the driver for confirmation. Ensure it covers everything, including petrol and “tolls.” On an overnight trip, your driver is expected to arrange his own accommodation, so don’t be concerned about that. You may be tempted to bring your driver in to a meal at your hotel, but that is strongly discouraged by the hotels and could even be embarrassing to the driver. Instead, if you feel the driver has been a good one, just tip him generously at the end of the trip.

Hotels. Look at the many mid-priced, smaller hotels; or consider guest houses at the upper end of the low budget range. These places are usually reasonably clean and comfortable, often with a warm, family welcome, but far less expensive than the big luxury chain hotels.

Get out into the countryside. The cities can feel overwhelming with the noise, litter, pollution, and congestion. Break up your time in cities with quieter time in the rural areas or wildlife preserves. If you have a car and driver, this is easier to arrange, but village tours are often also available through hotels and travel agencies.

Meeting Indians. Many Indians are friendly and are eager to have a conversation. If they are fairly comfortable economically, middle class to upper class, they likely will be sincere and are often helpful. Sometimes Indians may even invite you into their homes.

But life can be very difficult financially for a majority of the population, and often the people who are less well-off economically will hope to profit from you — maybe by inserting themselves as a “guide” to the site you’re visiting; maybe by selling you something; maybe by bringing you into a shop where they’ll get a commission; or maybe by asking you to change money at a rate favorable to them.

Occasionally they can be annoyingly persistent even after being told that you aren’t interested. If you don’t want to do what they’re asking, act confident, be firm, keep on walking, and don’t give in.

They may also ask for your address or other contact information to establish a friendship in which they’ll later ask you directly for money, or to buy something abroad for them, or to help them get a visa. If this happens, be kind and pleasant, but unless you really do want that type of relationship, say “no” nicely but firmly and bring the contacts to a close or avoid them in the future.

Home stays. You can stay as a paying visitor in many low cost small guest houses, where you’re often treated almost as family. You might also consider joining the nonprofit organization Servas. India has hundreds of volunteer hosts who would like to have foreigners visit for a couple of nights. There is no charge, but the purpose is promoting understanding by getting to know each other—not free lodging. See www.servas.org for the international web site, or www.usservas.org for Servas USA.

And for all travelers, including those on packaged tours:

Drinking water. Don’t drink local tap water. “Mineral” water in 1 or 2 liter plastic bottles is sold virtually everywhere, but make sure the seal is intact and hasn’t been re-glued. However, plastic litter has become prevalent in India, and a portable water purifier is a good alternative. (Note that you must have a purifier component to kill viruses, not just a filter).

Food and drink. At restaurants and in homes, cooked food should generally be safe. Raw vegetables and fruit are OK if they can be peeled (but not washed in tap water). Tea (chai) and coffee should be safe as they are normally made with boiled water. Avoid iced drinks unless you know the ice is from safe water.

For snacks or a lunch to carry with you, oranges, bananas, roasted peanuts, and packaged biscuits (cookies) are safe and widely available.

Beggars. Giving is a personal choice. Many beggars are truly needy. Some are “holy men” who have renounced the world. Some are scam artists. We prefer to give generously to certain nonprofit organizations. We do recommend that you smilingly but firmly say “no” to children hounding you for pens, money, or sweets. Giving just encourages the harassment.

Bargaining or bartering. Except for the government-run emporia and chain stores, most shopkeepers expect to negotiate a price. They are far more expert at haggling than you are. Foreigners can always expect to pay more, so let loose of any feeling that you need to avoid being taken advantage of.

It helps to have some idea of what a final price should be (you can ask around or visit a fixed-price shop), and how valuable the item is to you. You might start with around half of the asking price. Leave if you’re not getting the desired results, but remain courteous and good humored. You may get a final, much lower, offer if the shopkeeper feels he’s losing the sale.

If your tour guide or taxi driver takes you to a particular shop, they’ll receive a commission on your purchases, so you might save some money if you visit shops independently.

Clothing. Wear sturdy shoes, as streets and sidewalks can be uneven and often unpleasantly littered. Keep in mind that you’ll often need to remove your shoes in temples or other holy sites. In general, wear clothing that leaves little bare skin exposed – modesty standards are stricter than you may be accustomed to.

Tipping. Westerners hand out more than most middle class Indians would. However, most people providing services to you don’t earn enough money and appreciate anything extra. To give you one standard of measurement, a typical wage for full day’s work for a casual rural laborer can be around US $4. Or, ten percent can be a good benchmark.