I visited India for a week this past holiday season, an experience that was beautiful and touching in many ways but also surprised the unprepared me—especially the me from “America”. This is an important distinction: a lot of the situations that I will describe here may be the norm or quite common in other places, but from the place of privilege I’ve been brought up in, I found it hard to adjust in the space of seven days. From this perspective, I’d like to share some of the less discussed tips you should be prepared for that I did not come across when I prepared for my visit.
- Bring wet wipes and tissues. Think about bringing about 10 wet wipes and one to-go pack of tissues per day you are in India. Indians typically do not use toilet paper when they go to the bathroom, instead they have a shower nozzle next to the toilet which they use to clean themselves. If you’re not used to that, it is awkward to use, especially if your first time is in a public bathroom. Moreover, India can be extremely dusty, so you can also use the wet wipes to clean your face and other body parts such as your feet (there are special facial wet wipes you can also buy if you have sensitive skin).
- Bring allergy medicine if you’re allergic to dust. Bring face masks. I did not do this, and I spent a few days with my eyes watering and miserable in bed. Though locals generally do not seem to wear face masks (perhaps they’re used to the air quality?), many tourists do, so don’t worry about standing out wearing your face mask.
- Spend the extra money to stay in a global hotel chain. I cannot stress this enough, especially since the global hotels usually cost the same as in America or in most cases, less. Despite my misgivings, I stayed in slightly more middle-of-the-road Indian hotels because they were often cheaper by $40-60 which my companion preferred. The rooms varied in cleanliness, especially in the bathroom. They would always only give one towel per guest, had spotty hot water, had minimal noise blocking, did not give slippers (bring plastic flip-flops!), the showers would often leak into the general bathroom floor, etc. In two hotels, if we wanted our room cleaned, we would have to leave our room key out in the hallway, which felt patently unsafe given that it would be very easy for another guest or random stranger to access our room. I would notice on Google Reviews and TripAdvisor that Indians would generally applaud the Indian hotels for their high standards, but Westerners generally would give the hotel a lower rating. Moreover, I would also notice that the photos provided by the hotel were usually over-exposed and washed out and the rooms were always darker and dirtier than the photos. Thus, do not be fooled by “high ratings” or good-looking photos. Instead, try to look at the reviews that come from your home country so you can form proper expectations.
- For a short trip or a trip with many stops, hire a driver. Even our friend who grew up in India admitted he wouldn’t take the bus now, as it’s crowded and slow. This same friend also advised us to book train tickets a few months in advance because they fill up fast. However, taking the train would have left us with a lot less flexibility on how much time we took at each place. Unless you have a lot of time to navigate the complex transportation system in India, it’s faster and more efficient to hire a driver.
- Don’t take it for granted that people speak or understand English well. I naively expected that in the capital city of New Delhi that most residents would be able to speak basic English, but when I asked a young man where the train station was, he did not recognize the word “train”.
- Be prepared for wildly varying degrees of cleanliness in cities. Even large cities will have raw sewage exposed in the street, especially in the older parts of the cities. You have to be careful about not stepping in it, and related puddles of pee and feces from human and animal sources.
- Bring a scarf everywhere. This applies to everyone, regardless of gender. There may be situations that you must cover your head, especially when entering a sacred space.
- Be prepared for slow and spotty internet. The only times I ever had fast internet was the 45 minutes free allotment in the New Delhi airport as I was leaving. I used Google Fi while I was traveling, and while generally it connected to 4G networks in the large cities I travelled to, network speeds were extremely slow, more akin to a slow 3G (not even HSPA+). When I was in small-town India, 4G was non-existent, only even slower 3G. Thus, download movies, books, whatever to keep you entertained before traveling to India. Download maps and guides as well beforehand. The free wifi in hotels was often doable but definitely not fast either, waiting for a YouTube video to load even at 244p could leave you hanging for a minute (!).